Booksellers of Boston: Harvard Book Store

Booksellers of Boston: Harvard Book Store

Harvard Book Store
1256 Massachusetts Ave,
Cambridge, MA 02138
http://www.harvard.com/

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Carole Horne, general manager of Harvard Book Store

An interview with Carole Horne, general manager

What motivated you to seek a job in a book store?

I’ve always loved books and had worked in libraries, so when I wanted a job while I was finishing my last course for my master’s degree at BU, I walked across the street and applied for a job at the Harvard Book Store on Comm. Ave. (now closed), thinking it would be for a few months. But I fell in love with working in a bookstore and never left.

How long have you worked for Harvard Book Store?

Since 1974, and I’ve been the general manager for about 10 years.

What is your favorite part of the job?

There are so many great things about working in a bookstore. I was the head buyer for about 26 years, and I love buying—I still do a little. Then there are the people. Being surrounded by people who love books, who talk about books, is great fun. And the advance reading copies are a big perk.

And just figuring out how to make it all work. Bookselling is fairly complicated, and there’s not much margin (literally) for error. But the reason I’ve kept the job for 40-some years is the pleasure of doing something that I think matters to our cultural life.

What makes Harvard Book Store unique?

There are many wonderful indie bookstores, but I think we’ve created an unusual balance of a scholarly, literary, and popular inventory, along with substantial used book and remainder selections. And we focus on super customer service, and creating an atmosphere people want to come back to.

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Harvard Square’s landmark indie book store has been in business since 1932.

What other bookstores do you admire and why?

There are so many! Really, I could write pages and not cover all the stores I admire. Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon, is one of the great bookstores in the world, with a huge in-store selection and the best indie book website I know. And Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi, would win the charm award in my book. But so many stores are the perfect fit for their neighborhoods, which is what indies do so well.

What changes in the industry have you noticed?

In 40 years, they’re enormous. When I started, we kept track of inventory on 3 x 5 cards, we typed orders and put them in envelopes to mail, and 2–5 weeks later, books arrived. Now of course everything is on computers, orders are placed over the web, books arrive in 2–5 days.

The bookstore world is coming full-circle. The indie bookstore channel made up a very large percent of the market, then along came the chains—Walden and B. Dalton—and cut into the market share. Then the big box chains, Borders and Barnes & Noble, followed by Amazon, then ereaders, all had an impact. But now indies are having something of a renaissance as the other channels aren’t growing as they were.

In publishing, of course, the big change is consolidation. When I started, for example, Random House, Penguin, Doubleday, Dell, Fawcett, NAL, et al., were separate publishers.

What kind of books do you like to read?

I have pretty eclectic tastes: essays, popular science, politics, criticism, books on music, cookbooks, urban studies, mysteries. But I probably read more literary fiction than anything else.

Describe your dream bookstore, if money were no object. 

It would be about 15,000 square feet (more than twice what we have now), with a bar serving light food, beer, and wine, dividing the bookstore from a separate space for events equipped with a state-of-the-art audio/video/recording system; a separate room for a large kid’s book section; and several medium-size rooms for seminars, book clubs, and for community groups to use. There would be a large, comfortable room for the staff to take breaks. There would be space for chairs, lots of room for display tables, a first-rate sound system, a programmable lighting system, kiosks throughout the store where customers and staff could browse our website, plenty of registers so no one would wait in line to pay. It would be comfortable, beautiful, functional, and above all, welcoming—a place you’d want to come often and stay awhile.

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Harvard Book Store’s dazzling Holiday Hundred display is a beacon for
window shoppers.

Describe one of your most memorable customer interactions.

A famous author who clearly didn’t want to be recognized came in and asked for suggestions in several categories. It was very weird pretending not to know who he was, and intimidating to be suggesting books for someone whose books I’d read.

What book trend drives you crazy?

The copy-cat phenomenon. As soon as there’s a successful book, there are sure to be dozens that are the “next” of its kind—the next Girl on the Train, etc.

Where do you see the book industry in 10 years?

I don’t think anyone can say where the industry will be, but I do think that real books—books on paper—will still be the dominant format, and bricks-and-mortar stores will still be around.

Name three books on your nightstand right now.

Christopher Hitchens’s new essay collection And Yet, Elena Ferrante’s Story of the Lost Child, Gloria Steinem’s My Life on the Road.

What book do you think deserves more attention than it gets?

There are so many. I’m constantly being surprised by books being out of print. But a book that’s still available and should get more attention is Frank Conroy’s great coming-of-age memoir, Stop-Time.

Jackie Shepherd

About Jackie Shepherd

Jackie is a Bookbuilders of Boston board member, an associate designer at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and an occasional illustrator. She has a pet duck named Angus McFlapperson. Catch her on Instagram and Twitter.