As Schoenhof’s Shutters, a Look at the Square’s Independent Bookstores

As Schoenhof’s Shutters, a Look at the Square’s Independent Bookstores


Photograph by Chensiyuan/Wikimedia Commons

ON MARCH 25, Harvard Square will bid a final farewell to Schoenhof’s Foreign Books. The 150-year-old bookstore currently lives on Mount Auburn Street, and rents its basement storefront from the Spee Club. Daniel Eastman, director of sales and marketing, told The Boston Globe that the club “has been really kind with us. This should have happened three years ago, but they tried really hard to find some way to help us stay.” The demise of Schoenhof’s, the largest brick-and-mortar retailer of foreign-language books in North America, is more than just a blow to wistful world travelers and language learners; it’s a loss for the Harvard community, which similarly lost The Globe Corner Book Store, one of the largest map and travel-book retailers in the country, to untenable rent increases in 2011.

In the final weeks of Schoenhof’s physical presence in the Square, other local independent booksellers face mounting rent prices, a shift in book-buyers’ purchasing behavior, and, most notably, tough competition from the Harvard Coop, which came under the management of corporate giant Barnes and Noble roughly two decades ago. For niche book lovers, Grolier Poetry Book Shop is an unmissable gem—it boasts a collection of more than 15,000 volumes and has a history of hosting celebrated names like e.e cummings ’15, T.S. Eliot ’10, Litt.D. ’47, and Marianne Moore. Ifeanyi Menkiti, who purchased the store as it was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy in 2006, says, “For us, it was all about this place and its history. It would be a shame to lose this culture. I’m from Nigeria, where history and culture matter.” Menkiti is professor emeritus of philosophy at Wellesley, and cites the income stability of teaching as a key reason why he and his wife felt able to take on the responsibility of running Grolier in the years it was struggling to stay afloat. “It is a labor of love,” says Menkiti. He remembers recently hosting a teenager from Newton-North High School who spent hours reading and laughing while perusing the shelves of the bookstore. The sense of fulfillment derived from seeing young people continue to discover and enjoy poetry sustains Menkiti’s mission to share Grolier’s collections with audiences who journey from across the country or across Harvard Yard to read the volumes he has available.

Just around the corner, Harvard Book Store offers ample reading material, both new and used, to patrons seeking a more generalist selection. Jeff Mayersohn bought the store at the end of 2008, “probably at the worst possible moment to buy a bookstore,” he says, referring to the economic turmoil in the United States at the time. Yet running a bookstore was a long-running dream, and Harvard Book Store was up for sale just around the time he was ready to retire and turn to a new project. Like all independent booksellers across the country and in Harvard Square, Mayersohn admits that the rise of online retailers like Amazon has posed a serious challenge for business, but explains how he found a silver lining: “People were lamenting the digitization of books as the end of the brick-and-mortar book store, but I saw it as a huge advantage. With the cloud, we had access to the same books that massive corporate book stores did.” To this end, Harvard Book Store is home to an Espresso book machine, which offers patrons the opportunity to print books on demand, including their own works. In addition to offering print services, Harvard Book Store holds betweetn 350 and 450 author readings each year in order to drive business to the store and combat steadily rising rents. Both the Harvard Book Store and Grolier rent from the University itself, and Mayersohn says Harvard has reassured his staff of its commitment to protecting brick-and-mortar businesses in the Square.

For John Petrovato, who has run Raven Used Books for roughly 20 years, the rent increases in Harvard Square have been something of a blessing in disguise. After Raven moved from its pricey basement location on busy JFK Street to a cheaper spot on Church Street, sales have been up and foot traffic has been higher than ever. “For what we do, the Square is the best place in the country we could be,” he says. Raven’s shelves of used books serve students, faculty members, and tourists looking for a brick-and-mortar shop that can match Amazon’s bargain prices, a luxury that places like Schoenhof’s and other new-book sellers don’t have. Petrovato explains that the prohibitive cost of retail space in the Square will continue to shape the kinds of stores that open there, citing prominent real estate that has gone to corporations like CVS and Urban Outfitters instead of small businesses. “World-class bookstores are trying to get into Harvard Square, and they just can’t afford the rents. Since I’ve been here, there’s easily been an increase of three to four times.”

Perhaps somewhat ironically, Schoenhof’s will continue to serve readers online, putting a medium that played a critical role in the store’s demise to good use in this next stage of the business. Its decision echoes steps considered by old Harvard Square mainstays like WordsWorth Books, which went out of business in 2004 and similarly considered taking its business online, only to fail to do so. For the time being, the best way for the Harvard community to help local booksellers may be to spend a peaceful afternoon perusing their shelves, instead of quickly typing a title into an Internet browser.

Roger Miller brings Surrealistic game night to Portsmouth Book & Bar

The very word “surreal” is an appropriate summation of guitarist, composer, artist and gamer Roger Clark Miller.

His interests have taken him on a path of existence that would be very hard to make up. From his days as a co-founder of seminal Boston rockers Mission of Burma, to the heady arrangements constructed by the Alloy Orchestra, and all of his musical endeavors in between, Miller knows no artistic bounds. Chase that which calls to you and navigate as best you can. Let the muse be your guide.

When Miller sets foot in Portsmouth Book & Bar on Saturday, May 17, he’ll be continuing to carve out another path he’s ventured down lately: that of the coordinator of his very own surrealistic games night.

The evening also will showcase his DJ skills, as he’ll provide the soundtrack to the night’s events.

If there’s any certainty of what will occur on Saturday, it’s that no matter what preconceived idea one may have in mind as to what may occur, the evening will definitely be out of the ordinary.

SPOTLIGHT: Tell me a bit about the evening you have planned. What inspired you to create this type of event?

MILLER: When I delved into Surrealism in the mid-70s, I found a way to create dream-like settings without the psychedelics, if you know what I mean. My friends and I would play the “Exquisite Corpse” drawing game on a regular basis. I expanded my interest in Surrealism during Mission of Burma (see our first 45, “Max Ernst”), and incorporated imagery and stories from my dreams in the lyrics. As I delved further, I discovered the word games, frottage drawing (using a pencil or other drawing tool to make a rubbing over a textured surface), and my son ended up creating “The Dream Game” for his fifth-grade project in Quincy (Mass.)! This “Dream Game” is played on a board with dice: by following the directions on the board you spontaneously write down a very phantasmagorical/dream-story, and it really works.

So eventually I had a good pile of games that I enjoyed playing with my friends, so why not do it in public? So far I’ve done it at Mass MoCA (Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art), Real Art Ways in Hartford, Conn., and the I.C.A. (Institute of Contemporary Art) in Boston. It’s always great fun.

The setting is that everyone sits at a table supplied with paper and drawing/writing tools. I explain the “Exquisite Corpse” drawing game, and people go at it! I stroll the tables explaining the various word games, and explaining the rules to the “Dream Game” and how to utilize frottage drawing to create interesting visual compositions. An extra plus is that everyone at a table quickly gets to know each other as they play the games.

The more you put into it, the more you get out of it. It’s up to the players, really. I love walking by tables and no one is talking, they’re all concentrating on writing words or drawing. Then when the paper is full, they open the paper up and read the surrealist sentences to each other or show the drawings. It’s really a blast, and sometimes astounding results are achieved, all through surrealist activities. Of course, these are the same games the Surrealists played in the ’20s and ’30s in Paris and other places.

SPOTLIGHT: The other element of interest here is the fact that you DJ these events. Tell us a bit about the soundtrack you provide. How does music enhance the overall experience?

MILLER: A very wide variety of music and styles will be included. From rock, there’s Roxy Music and Brian Eno’s early work, some Mission of Burma songs qualify, especially with my use of dreams in lyrics. Both the “Dream Interpretations” from my “Elemental Guitar” CD, and music from some of my other bands: Exquisite Corpse (of course!) and with my brothers Benjamin and Laurence, M2 and M3. Of course John Cage, Steve Reich, and some just abstract sounds. Not all of this music is ‘technically surrealistic,’ but it suits the evening. Often people will come up to me and ask what piece is playing. I like that.

Basically the music is mildly disorienting — helpful for surrealist activities — and encouraging towards the unusual — also helpful for surrealist activities. Often abstract.

SPOTLIGHT: What do you know about the Book & Bar? What excites you about producing this event at the venue?

MILLER: I know (co-founder) Jon Strymish — isn’t that enough? He has taken a number of pretty cool photos of Mission of Burma, the Binary System, and other ensembles I’ve been in. On the CD called “Monsoon” — me; William Hooker and Lee Ranaldo (from Sonic Youth) — most of the photos are by Jon. I like his style. I figure his club would have style as well, based on that. I’ve heard nothing but good stuff about the place, and it seems a great venue for the games. Good size, casual vibe, high-quality beer!

SPOTLIGHT: Do you have any history with Portsmouth, N.H.? Did Mission of Burma ever play the (late) Elvis Room by chance?

MILLER: The Alloy Orchestra has played The Music Hall on a couple of occasions, always fun. I don’t think Burma played Portsmouth, but I can’t always recall where we played way back in the day (1979-1983). It kind of p——- me off that my bands don’t play New Hampshire much, so here’s a chance to change that, even if this ain’t a band …

SPOTLIGHT: What are you looking for people to take with them when they experience an event of this nature? What’s the communal feel?

MILLER: That by working together you can create something totally unexpected. The end result is inherently collective. The Surrealists claimed that the unconscious/subconscious of the players was revealed, and I have found that, to some degree, that is definitely true. I’ve walked by tables where people are discussing why they drew a particular image, based on what was going on in their life. And it’s just plain downright fun in a social fashion. Everyone’s making art, even if they don’t normally do that! What’s the problem with that? Nothin’ but fun.

The Surrealist games inherently produce imagery rubbing up against imagery that wouldn’t normally happen. So one sees connections in things one normally wouldn’t think of. I believe that is useful in day-to-day life, to make life more interesting. The unexpected — it can be marvelous.

SPOTLIGHT: What is the most surreal experience you’ve had while hosting one of these events?

MILLER: For me it’s mostly work! For three hours I don’t stop talking and explaining and listening to people’s word-games or looking at their drawings. Honestly, most of my life it’s about ME creating things. Here, it’s about me supplying the experience to OTHERS, making it easy for them to create. I love it, actually. When I see participants amazed at what they created, or just laughing at them, that makes me totally happy. I love seeing things being created, by myself or others. But I’m usually pretty tired by the end of the three hours! Probably the most surreal part of these events is the dreams I’ll have later that night …

Says the aforementioned Strymish: I’m really excited about this event …; Watching Roger play guitar in Mission of Burma when I was 17 was a life-changing experience, and seeing his integrity and thoughtfulness in everything he’s done since has been an inspiration. So I am stoked to be able to bring this to Portsmouth and see the inspiration go forward.