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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.
Sad to hear that Schoenhofs bookstore is closing. One of the oldest bookstores in the country that specializes in foreign language titles.
After 161 years of business, Schoenhof’s Foreign Books plans to permanently shutter its doors on March 25.Schoenhof’s, the self-described “oldest and largest foreign language-only bookstore in the United States,” was originally founded in Boston in 1856. The store moved to Cambridge in the early 1900s and has been at its Mount Auburn St. location in Harvard Square since 1983.
In a press release announcing the closure, Daniel Eastman, Schoenhof’s general director, wrote that high rents in the Square and competition from online booksellers prompted the store to close.
“In recent years a number of independent businesses have been driven out of the Square by the high rents, and Schoenhof’s finds itself joining their ranks,” Eastman wrote.
Eastman said that while the closing is not ideal, he understands that Schoenhof’s had to shutter its brick and mortar location.
“Our landlord has been quite helpful with us, quite helpful and supportive, but there is only so much that they can possibly do,” Eastman said. “There comes a point when what they’re ready to concede and what we’re able to give can’t meet.”
For several decades, Schoenhof’s has rented its location from the Spee Club.
Denise A. Jillson, executive director of the Harvard Square Business Association, said that consumers should prioritize buying from local businesses like Schoenhof’s to prevent their closure.
“You can’t expect that bookstores or newspaper stores or retailers of any kind will survive if people continue to buy online. That’s just the reality,” Jillson said.
David A. Gevarter ’19 said he was disappointed to hear the news. As a Romance Languages and Literature concentrator who speaks English, Hebrew, Spanish, French, and German, Schoenhof’s was his go-to bookstore.
“I’m a big language nerd, so I am very excited to be able to go into a store where they have a couple hundred languages available,” Gevarter said.
Gevarter also praised Schoenhof’s staff.
“I think the staff for sure was one of the best parts in addition to having such an amazing collection of books,” he said. “The staff there is incredibly knowledgable and very helpful. Even if you don’t know what you’re looking for, or if you’re just browsing, they are very helpful helping you find something that you’d be interested in.”
In the press release, Eastman said Schoenhof’s will maintain its online store as a way to continue to fulfill its mission.
“The mission of Schoenhof’s has always been to provide access to the larger world through language learning materials and literature in the original,” wrote Eastman in the press release. “Given the present political and social climate, that mission becomes ever more meaningful.”
Eastman said the website will offer a wide variety of foreign books at a low cost.
“We’d like to be able to take advantage, in a way, of having, say, the reduced expenses of our retail location, and invest that into having an amazing website that offers a complete experience, a complete customer experience as close to actually being in a bookstore without being able to be there, as well as offering the lowest possible pricing,” Eastman said.
Schoenhof’s has been a longtime member of the Harvard Square Business Association and is active in community events, particularly the Bookish Ball and Shakespeare’s Birthday Celebration, according to Jillson.
“It has been so lovely because we clearly get visitors from across the globe, and for us to be able to send them to Schoenhof’s to get a book in Portuguese or a book in French or a book in Spanish is just a delight, and something that is very unique and really will be a loss for Harvard Square,” Jillson said.
Jillson emphasized the importance of going out and buying from local retailers.
“It’s how much they care, and if they care, they will think twice before they go to Amazon to buy something,” Jillson said. “If they don’t walk out of their dorm room or out of their home and into the Square and into a store to support that store—and I don’t care whether it’s a local, regional, national, or international—if you don’t do that, the vibrancy of the Square or of any business district is jeopardized.”
Though Eastman said he is sad to see Schoenhof’s brick and mortar location go, he said he has high hopes for its online future.
“We really appreciate the support that we received from the students at Harvard over the last, my God, over 90 years that we’ve been in Cambridge. And we just hope that they’ll continue to visit us online,” Eastman said.
–Staff writer Alison W. Steinbach can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @alisteinbach.
—Staff writer Katherine E. Wang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A woman in a century-old straw hat, sitting with a needle and thread, warns me “the sun can crisp you up.” Nearby another woman, speaking at first in Hebrew, says, “My husband came from Ukraine in 1903. I moved here in 1904.” Afterward I chat with a cooper with sharply parted white hair. He’s proud of a recent deal he made: a barrel for two brooms.
No one ever tells you how to respond to this stuff. You know, these sorts of costumed role-players or living historians. Here at Strawbery Banke—a charming collection of a few dozen colonial-era buildings in Portsmouth, New Hampshire—I’m finding it’s rewarding to just play along.
Settled in the early 1600s, Portsmouth might be America’s greatest small town. The port town was built on the Piscataqua River for exclusively the king’s commerce. On the wharves, workers built British ships—ships later used against the colonies in the Revolutionary War. In the years since, it simply never expanded like Boston, or even Portland, Maine, just north. (The tidal river isn’t ideal for constant comings and goings, one local tells me.) Still, there’s lobster and sand, history and theater, New Hampshire’s best restaurants and lots of beer. And walking by 18th- and 19th-century town houses along its lively cobbled center, it’s hard to believe only 21,000 people call it home.
Opened in 1958, the Strawbery Banke Museum is considered the first urban renewal project in the United States to favor preservation over demolition. (“Its impact ripped through the preservation movement like a sound wave,” Linda Landry writes in her 2003 book, Classic New Hampshire.)
Frankly, I enjoy its colonial-era punch of the few dozen buildings more than I expected. The Shapley-Drisco House is a time-warp peek split evenly between its different incarnations: One side of the house is made up like a home in the 1790s, the other like the 1950s.
And in the Pitt Tavern here I learn about Portsmouth’s other big passion. A gray-haired man with white loafers and a crimson shirt laments to me how New Hampshire used to be “number one in beer consumption” (42.2 gallons per capita in 2013) but recently fell behind North Dakota.
“That’s only because of all the petroleum going on there,” he says with some bitterness.
Yes, beer is big in Portsmouth. A handful of breweries line the winding central streets (my hotel, the Ale House Inn, is a former brewery), while the bigger-name Smuttynose and Redhook breweries are within 20 minutes’ drive. One of my favorite spots for a pint in the center is Book and Bar, a used bookstore in the former U.S. Custom House that’s now licensed to sell microbrews.
On a back alley, Earth Eagle Brewings is a compact bar-eatery with playful artwork and nine tables that quickly fill with locals. The focus is experimentation by beer, mostly local microbrews. The Spruce Bringsteen is a sweet pale ale, while the Beltane, an amber gruit, has “a real barnyard quality, think blue cheese,” says my waitress.
I get her barnyard description once I try it, and their “figgy pig” special (a flatbread sandwich with Gruyère, bacon, porchetta, and fig jam) is my favorite meal I’ve had in New Hampshire so far.
Portsmouth’s a great walking town. On my first day, I walk down quiet streets with Georgian homes (five windows on the second floor, two on either side of the front door) and stop in Sheafe Street Books, complete with a “pirates” section. The owner, an upstate New York transplant, sends me to nearby Peirce Island, where I see people wandering the riverside trails.
In the morning I join a walking tour led by Jeff Thomson, a local from just across the river in Kittery, Maine. One stop leads us to something I missed on my first day’s ramble. A short walk from John Paul Jones’s old home, the African Burying Ground is the site of a slave cemetery only discovered during road construction in 2003, and it is now a moving memorial. Part of it features eight faceless figures. “I stand for those who feel anger,” one reads. “I stand for those who find dignity in these bones,” reads another.
Thomson notes, “We don’t always like talking about it, but we must remember slavery existed here too.”
Another big draw, of course, is the coastline. New Hampshire’s doesn’t last long—only 13 miles (21 kilometers)—but is lined with sand and rocky beaches that draw sunbathers and surfers. Quieter Rye, just outside Portsmouth, is home to mansions you can visit. For me, the best part of the coast is the lobster. You find it everywhere, at fish shacks on the beach and restaurants in town.
A friend of a friend, Robert Nudd, invites me for a lobster dinner at home with his wife, Sheila. His family has been here since the 1600s, and he’s been fishing, sometimes for 60 days straight, for four decades. His crew sometimes ribs him for holding onto pre-digital technology, he says, and he can’t imagine doing anything else. Today he’s caught dozens of lobster, and is cooking up way too many for our dinner.
Lobster is big up and down New Hampshire’s wee coastline. Shacks and sit-down restaurants boil up fresh catches.
Get that? Portsmouth is a lively colonial town that’s escaped most traveler radars. It has beaches and beer and theater, and its lobster is delicious.
Stay: Ale House Inn has compact boutique rooms within walking distance of all the center shops, restaurants, theaters, and sites.
See: Strawbery Banke is a district of a few dozen homes with costumed role-players. The $19.50 admission lasts for two consecutive days. The bulk of the sandy beaches are in Hampton, within a 20-minute drive. They get busy.
Do: Discover Portsmouth hosts several themed walking tours. For $12, I got a lot out of the 60-minute daily walking tour. You can kayak by islands in the Piscataqua; Portsmouth Kayak Adventures rents kayaks and offers tours.
Willing to brave the brutal cold, snowy slippery streets or the crushing despair toward the world that most of us suffer with these days? If so, we picked up a few amazing collections over the past week. A large Classics library will start to come out today (there will be over 100 Loeb’s by next week). We also are starting to put out an amazing advanced Mathematics and Philosophy collection. Also picked up some nice art and literature books.
As many people have noticed, we have been pouring in tons of incredible books of late. Perhaps because we have purchased nearly 100,000 books in the last 2 months alone. Large collections include subjects such as Philosophy, Mathematics, Physics, Political and social theory, fiction, Ancient and Medieval studies. Not sure why this year we are getting much more books than previous years…..perhaps has to do with the baby-b00mer generation having build libraries and are now in the process of downsizing, retiring, etc. Whatever the reason, it has been truly amazing and we have weeks worth of book collections scheduled already into the fall. If you have any questions, please feel free to contact us.