CAMBRIDGE (Hoodline) – Wondering where to find the best bookstores near you? Hoodline crunched the numbers to find the top bookstores in Cambridge, using both Yelp data and our own secret sauce to produce a ranked list of the best spots to venture next time you’re in the mood for a good read.
1. Harvard Book Store
Topping the list is Harvard Book Store. The Cambridge institution is unaffiliated with the university, and instead of textbooks, it boasts two floors of fiction, nonfiction, children’s books and more, both new and used. It also hosts author events on an almost daily basis.
Located at 1256 Massachusetts Ave. in Harvard Square since 1932, it is the highest-rated bookstore in Cambridge, boasting 4.5 stars out of 310 reviews on Yelp.
2. Raven Used Books
A few blocks away is Raven Used Books, situated at 23 Church St. With origins in Western Massachusetts (including Montague Bookmill, of which Raven owner John Petrovato was a co-owner in the 1990s), Raven moved into this spot in 2015. It specializes in scholarly and literary titles and benefits from a large volume of turnover, so that there is always something new to discover.
With 4.5 stars out of 112 reviews on Yelp, the shop has proven to be a local favorite.
3. MIT Press Bookstore
MIT Press Bookstore is another top choice, with Yelpers giving it five stars out of 38 reviews. This shop is owned and operated by the university press. It stocks most of the books and journals published by the MIT Press, along with selected books from other publishers working in related fields, such as art and architecture, computer science, cognition, neuroscience and linguistics.
The bookstore moved in 2016 from its longtime but cramped quarters in Kendall Square to this much larger store at 301 Massachusetts Ave.
As Schoenhof’s Shutters, a Look at the Square’s Independent Bookstores
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.
Is Portsmouth the U.S.A.’s Greatest Small Town?
A dash of colonial history, a taste of a local craft brew, and a peek at a sunset over the water—New Hampshire’s Portsmouth has all you need this summer.
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.
HOW TO DO THIS TRIP
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.
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.
FRIDAY, JUNE 21 9:00 p.m. > BILLY ELI
Texas songwriter Billy brings his “country that rocks and rock that’s country” to Book & Bar with his band featuring world class musicians. Comparisons to Billy’s style have been made to Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, and Steve Earle. billyeli.com
SATURDAY, JULY 6, 9:00 p.m. > KEN STRINGFELLOW
Founding member of The Posies, member of R.E.M for ten years and with Memphis’s Big Star for seventeen years, Ken comes to us from his home in Paris for a night of solo performance from his new record “Danzig in the Moonlight” and beyond. Ken’s shows are legendary, pushing minimalism to its core definition, often performing without using the house PA. His voice soars, cries, leaps from barely audible to room-filling anguish, joy, sorrow and humor. Ken’s live shows have been raved about in packed audiences from Lithuania to Lima, from Taipei to Tasmania, from Johannesburg to Trinidad. kenstringfellow.com