The Harvard Book Store has been operating in Harvard Square for almost 80 years. It was founded in 1932 by a Dorchester native, Mark Kramer. He was a young man who borrowed $300 from his Russian immigrant parents to get the store started. With this money he opened a small store selling used books on Boylston Street (today JFK St.). To this day, his son Frank comments on how lucky he is that his father made two key business decisions: first, he opened the store in Harvard Square, not in Dorchester; and second, he didn’t call it Mark’s Bookstore.
A few years after starting the store, Mark met Pauline while she was at the Harvard Summer School, and they were married in 1934. Pauline started working in the bookstore almost immediately, and together they built it from a meager beginning to a successful dealer in used books, remainders and a lively trade in used text books. About eight years after their marriage, Frank was born.
Frank grew up the son of book dealers, but had no intention of going into the book business himself. He graduated from Lexington High School and went to Boston University, where he was majoring in philosophy. He had an idea that he might go to law school following college but was not actively pursuing that when, in his senior year, his father died suddenly and left him the Harvard Book Store.
Shocked and unprepared, Frank Kramer, at the age of 20, took over the bookstore. While Frank had been growing up, the store had grown, moved to Mass. Ave (in 1/3 of its present space), and now had two other locations, a store near Tufts University and a store near Northeastern University. Frank was helped and tutored by the store’s five dedicated employees, and he did his best to run the Harvard Square store while his mother ran the two satellite stores.
The world of book dealers that Frank stepped into in 1962 was very different from the world of book dealers today. Bookstores across the country were also entering a period of transition. One part of this transition became known as the “paperback revolution.” For years, paperback books had been mainly pulp fiction, a term coined because the cheap paper they were printed on had high wood pulp content and therefore deteriorated quickly. They were largely sold through newsstands and circulated by newspaper distributors. In the early 1960s, publishers started to use paperbacks as a way to release titles they had accepted but had not yet printed because there wasn’t enough demand for them or older titles that were no longer selling well in hardcover. As more book dealers started carrying paperbacks, printing accelerated and thousands of titles started to become available in cheaper paperback copies. This influx of cheaper books started to change the way people thought about books and bookstores. About the same time, two other important changes happened. The first chain books stores started and the first shopping malls opened across America. Within ten years, there were shopping malls a few miles drive from every suburb, and every one of them had a Walden Books or a B. Dalton Bookstore.
These changes hurt independent book sellers across America, although their impact was less pronounced in Harvard Square. As Frank Kramer said, “Harvard Square was the Mecca for bookstores.” There were over 20 bookstores in the few blocks that make up the Square and every single one of them had knowledgeable staff and some kind of a niche market. This degree of sophistication kept the chain stores out, and for a while made bookstores a past time. Cantabrigians and visitors to the Square would to spend a Friday or Saturday night browsing in different bookstores, looking at the different selections and making a few purchases. There was even a map printed of all the different bookstores in the Square.
Meanwhile, Frank Kramer was learning the ropes and learning his most important skill: to innovate and change with the times. In 1965 a large space behind the Harvard Book Store opened up when the Crimson newspaper switched to using smaller printing presses and moved their printing operations into their basement. This allowed the Harvard Book Store to move its administrative offices out of the retail store and also gave them space to open a separate store catering to law school students, known as the Law School Annex on Plympton Street. Frank renovated the 1248 Mass Ave store, opened a basement space and balcony and went from 400 square feet of retail space to 2000 square feet.
In the coming years, the Harvard Book Store was able to continue expanding. In 1970, their BU store moved and expanded. The next year Frank took over the storefront on the corner of Plympton and Mass Ave, and used this space for an all new booksstore. In 1974 the Harvard Book Store opened a location on Newbury Street that catered to the New England School of Law. The store on Newbury Street closed in 1980 and then reopened as the second bookstore café in New England. However, this was not just a coffee and cookies kind of café: it had a full service menu, and Jasper White was the chef. In the same year, Harvard Book Store was able to take over a third store front on Mass Ave, although for the first couple of years, they subleased the space. In 1987 the three Mass Ave. store fronts were merged into what we know today.
However, while there were steps forward, there were also new challenges facing the bookstores of Harvard Square. The 1970 riots caused fear for many people, who started opting for the safer suburban shopping malls. The extension of the Red Line to Alewife left Harvard Square ripped up and a traffic nightmare for years. In 1984 when it was complete, the people who had taken busses into Harvard Square to transfer onto the Red Line. now just drove to Alewife and no longer stopped in the Square. Finally, in 1995 Amazon.com opened for business.
All of these factors led to many of the Harvard Square booksellers closing up shop. The numbers dropped rapidly, and, perhaps most memorably, Wordsworth closed in 2004. However, through all of this, the Harvard Book Store has been able to stay strong. A large part of this has been due to innovating and adapting. They started new author events, bringing in authors to speak about their works and take questions, rather than just sitting at a table and signing books. They began actively promoting the business and teamed up with other independent booksellers nationwide to form the Independent Book Consortium, a national organization that meets three times a year to discuss the issues facing independent book sellers and to share ideas and resources. Locally, Frank Kramer also became one of the co-founders of Cambridge Local First, an organization that promotes unique, independently owned businesses.
Through all this, Frank has kept his sense of humor. At a recent meeting, he recounted a joke circulated among publishers that the second book off the Gutenberg press predicted the death of the printing press. He also commented that booksellers are passionate about what they do and are not going to give up the experience of being in a bookstore and handling real books.
While Frank sold the Harvard Book Store last year, he remains active in the community and spent the time to find a buyer who will continue the traditions he and his parents started. In reflecting on his career as a book seller in the Mecca of bookstores, Frank said, “I’m most proud of having survived through innovation while still being respected as a good traditional bookstore.”
As prepared by:
Gavin W. Kleespies, Executive Director Cambridge Historical Society.
Katie MacDonald, Intern Cambridge Historical Society.