Jeff Mayersohn #10


Harvard Bookstore


When a kid’s primary "reading device" has both War and Peace on it and social networking and email and gaming and TV and video and the Internet, we lose... there's so much temptation and so much to distract us.


Interview by Heidi Legg

When did you buy the store?

In 2008. After thirty years of working in technology, this is my retirement. It's a wonderful job, but a lousy retirement.

I have to admit that when I dreamed about owning a bookstore, I imagined I'd have my feet up and I'd spend all my time reading! Instead, I've met really amazing people — writers, booksellers, customers — and we spend a lot of time talking about books.

How did you arrive at buying a bookstore as a retirement gig?

I spent twenty years working on the Internet in Cambridge with Bolt, Beranek and Newman (BBN), which basically got the contract to build the ARPANET, which was the precursor of the Internet. It was sort of an amazing experience to have been there. I can't claim I was there at the very beginning but I got there in the late '70s and it was just a very, very exciting time. It was a group of very smart and very talented and very creative people. And at a certain point, it began to grow like crazy. One of the last projects I was involved in was helping to build AOL's network and this was at a point where AOL was basically THE Internet. I don't remember the exact numbers but we were trying to keep up with adding hundreds of thousands of users a month. If there were fifteen days in a week and eighty hours in a day, you could have worked all of them just trying to keep up.

Then someone I had met at BBN founded a company that was doing voice telephone over the Internet, and I joined Sonus Networks. Building a startup was another amazing experience. One of the interesting things about startups, particularly in a service area like telephony that has been around for 100 years, is that you can be nimble. Sonus Networks was very successful and we grew fast. We went from a few dozen employees in a few years to 1,000 employees. What it taught me is that if you’re small and nimble, no matter how intimidating and well funded the competition, you can succeed by being fast and creative.

And that brought me to owning a bookstore.

Even though the book in its current form has been around for 2,000 years, this is a very similar time where you have disruptive technologies and a lot of uncertainty about what the future is going to hold for publishing. We're up against some giants and so, in many respects, this is an even more daunting challenge, but it's the sort of thing that makes it all the more exciting for me.

As a disruptor, what are you trying to solve or change specifically?

Actually, I view it as the opposite. It's more a matter of adapting and preserving rather than solving and changing because there is something really important that we want to preserve.

I think literature, both fiction and non-fiction, is such an important part of human culture and civilization. In many respects the book is the incarnation of civilization. Booksellers across the country are trying to both adapt to and influence the future, but at the same time preserve something which we think is very important —literature culture.

Competitors might say, 'Why isn't it going to be preserved with the Kindle or the Nook?' Why must it be in the physical book format?

I'm willing to admit to that possibility but I'm not banking on it.

E-readers are one thing but part of what I see happening relates to immersion. Reading a book is an immersive experience. In a world where we're all beginning to be afflicted by a sort of attention deficit disorder, I worry that the tablet will displace the E-reader and the tablet threatens reading.

When a kid’s primary "reading device" has both War and Peace on it and social networking and email and gaming and TV and video and the Internet, we lose... there's so much temptation and so much to distract us.

Is there a place for the E-reader?

The E-reader has value at least for me if I'm traveling or if I'm on vacation, but I prefer the physical book. I also think that for many of us, walking around in a library and seeing all these books that you could reach out and touch, each with its own smell, its own feel, its own personality was an important part of developing a love of reading. If a book just becomes a file on a small computer do you develop the same sense of attachment? The same sense of the magic and power of books?

We do sell E-readers in the Harvard Bookstore and we do sell digital books. Different people will have different preferences, but I think our primary mission is to bring ideas to people and then to establish a sort of venue where people can exchange ideas.

Why should the world care?

I think that historically a lot of civilization has been based upon the written word. We've probably been storytellers since the beginning of time, but it's the way in which ideas get promulgated.

It's the way in which we sort of develop ourselves as thinkers by both reading other people's ideas and then thinking critically about them, and then talking about them and developing new ideas, ourselves. I think that's an important aspect of the way in which humanity has progressed through the millennia — the development of culture alongside with storytelling, and culminating in the book.

For me the most important thing is the exchange of ideas and whether that's through a talk in our store or a physical book or a digital book, I think that's all fine. The concern is that as other demands on our time grow, the important aspect of civilization and culture is going to be lost.

Tell us about Paige M. Gutenborg and the Espresso Book Machine?

When my wife (Linda Seamonson) and I first bought the store, one of the things that became almost conventional wisdom was the notion that the digitization of literature would be the death knell for brick and mortar stores. I disagreed. I thought the digitization of books could be the great leveler.

You see, people love to browse in bookstores but over the past few years this notion developed that if you had a specific book in mind, you went online and you bought it. If you wanted to browse, you went to a bookstore. As people became more and more pressed for time, the online component of book buying began to grow at the expense of the enjoyable browsing experience.

One of the conclusions I reached was if people who wanted a specific book could be assured that the book would be available, and if the store had the capability to reach all those digital books and create the physical book on location, then we had a solution. I got very excited about this idea. I actually thought that the digitization of books could be the salvation of the bookstore. Enter Paige.

Around the time I was looking at buying the store, I began to do research in whether this technology existed, and I found that the technology did in fact exist through a company called On Demand Books, founded by one of the great figures in American publishing, Jason Epstein. Epstein is credited with having developed the trade paperback, with the belief that quality literature could be available in paperback form when he was editorial director at Random House. He edited some of the great writers of the 20th Century: E.L Doctorow, Philip Roth, Jane Jacobs and her book The Death and Life in American amazing woman. Anyway, Jason was her editor and then he was one of the founders of both the New York Review of Books and the Library of America. His most recent invention was the Espresso Book Machine, explicitly motivated by the notion that no book should ever go out of print. Jason viewed the so-called backlist -- the collection of all the books ever published -- as the treasure trove of all of civilization.

Did Jason Epstein actually invent the Espresso book-making machine?

The concept was his and he started the company. He and a fellow by the name of Dane Neller who ran Dean & Deluca's, an experienced retailer. So, Dane and Jason were sort of the guiding lights behind On Demand Books and together they created the Espresso Book Machine.

Is The Harvard Bookstore the only store that calls her Paige?

When we bought the machine, we actually held a contest among our customers and we had hundreds of entries. Nobody suggested Paige and Gutenborg, but a bunch of people suggested Paige, and several people surprisingly had independently come up with the name Gutenborg. Then I think maybe one person came up with the M and the M stands for Mean Book Making Machine. So as a result -- Paige M. Gutenborg.

Q: How many are there now across the country?

Oh, there are probably close to 100.

A compact digital press, it can print nearly five million titles including Google Books that are in the public domain, as well as out of print titles. We’re talking beautiful, perfect bound paperbacks indistinguishable from books produced by major publishing houses.  Forbes Magazine

Do you print current titles as well?

Yes. Some. Harper Collins recently gave us thousands of titles –including current authors like Barbara Kingsolver and Dennis Lehane, Joyce Carol Oates and many more. In the past year, Google Books has linked directly to some of the Espresso Book Machines. So you can do a search on Google Books for an older out-of-print Alice in Wonderland, and you can have it printed, then come to the store and pick it up or we can ship it to you. But the largest number of books that we've printed on Paige have been self-published books.

As a self-published author, it was exciting to come in and watch Paige print My Evangeline.

One of the pleasant surprises was that we realized that a large number of people out there, who because of changes in the publishing industry, and who have enormous talent, have written really wonderful books but can't find publishers. So the other benefit to Paige is that we gave another vehicle for those people to be able to make their works available to the public.

How hard is that to convince publishers to allow you access to their titles for Paige?

They're gradually getting there . They have valid concerns that this will disrupt the entire way in which they do business. They have investments in the creation of physical books and actually we would prefer to get the book from the publisher. The economics are quite frankly better for us, but on the other hand, the most important thing for us is to retain a customer. So, if a customer comes in looking for a book and we don't have it, they're very likely to go to Amazon or some place online and for us it’s all about customer retention. It's a critical part of changing the way in which customers view the bookstore as being a wonderful browsing experience, as well as a place where they can find any book ever written.

The other part of my calculus, by the way, was the notion that because we're local, we should be able actually to get it into people's hands faster. So at the same time that we got Paige, we launched a same or next day delivery service by bicycle.

You hand deliver books by bicycle?

Yes, in partnership with a company called Metroped. So really the future that we're looking forward to is where you can get any book ever written either in the store in five minutes or delivered to your house in a few hours.

How much is Metroped?

We charge the same price for all of our rapid shipping service, whether it's across the country or by bicycle in the neighborhood. We charge $5 for the first book and $1 for each additional book.

What do you wake up thinking about?

I'm afraid I'm going to disappoint you here... at the end of the day, even though bookselling is about grand ideas, we're also a sort of small business. Two things which surprised me when I entered this business: one is that publishers have characters and identities and relationships with authors that became so much more important in my world than it had been as a reader and secondly, how good and dedicated the people who work in independent bookstores are, and how passionate they are about reading and literature.

There's a tremendous amount of enthusiasm and integrity associated with independent booksellers. I've seen examples of a sort of cynical selling in the business world, and it's the opposite in the world of books. I really spend a lot of time thinking about, 'How can we get to the point where young people can feel that they can have a career in bookselling?' At one point, decades ago, when the economics in the industry were much different, you could really consider having a career in bookselling and book writing.

I spend a lot of time thinking about how we can get to the point where young people can feel that, 'I can have a career in this particular field' rather than 'this is the job that I'm taking between college and graduate school.’

Along the line did someone influence you or inspire you?

It's a little bit different for me because this is "my retirement project," right? It's not like I set out as a young person to have a career in bookselling. But when I think about the publishing industry, I admire Frank Kramer who was the fellow who built Harvard Bookstore, Carol Horne who's the general manager and who really runs the store. I'm a newbie at this business but one thing I've learned in my business career is how much having done something before matters, and so I have no illusions that I could come into the Harvard Bookstore and run it and transform it without the help of real professionals.

I think about someone like Jason Epstein who has really spent a career transforming American publishing. I mean, I still read New York Review of Books passionately and I've been a subscriber to the Library of America for longer than I can remember. Those volumes have completely taken over our living room. Now Jason is in his eighties, but he hasn't stopped thinking creatively about the future of the book asking, “How do you merge this digital future that we are in today with publishing in its traditional form?” and the Espresso Book Machine is a manifestation of that question.

What's a day for you in the Harvard Bookstore look like?

My favorite day is Saturday because on Saturday I have a shift in the store. I work from 10:30 to 7:00 with a 45-minute break, and I spend as much time as I can behind the info desk engaging in conversations with customers.

I have to admit, I'm not the other booksellers’ favorite bookseller because even though I'm a bookseller on Saturdays, I still own the store so I tend to engage in somewhat overly long conversations with customers to the detriment of the bookseller's objective – volume.

How long are most days?

I tend not to be an early riser but I stay quite late. One of the great joys of being associated with the bookstore is to attend the author talks. So, I probably attend more author talks than any single employee of the store. We do between 200 and 300 author talks a year, and the majority of those are inside our store at night. So, I'm often here quite late.

What upcoming event at the Harvard Bookstore are you most looking forward to?

I most look forward to the events involving local writers, since these tend to turn into parties, with other local writers also in attendance. There are two such events that I'm particularly looking forward to.  Megan Marshall, who worked at our store long before I bought it, has a new biography of Margaret Fuller: A New American Life and will be reading on March 14. Gish Jen, a wonderful novelist, gave the Massey Lectures at Harvard last year.  Harvard University Press is publishing her lectures under the title Tiger Writing: Art, Culture, and the Interdependent Self.  She'll be discussing them in the store on March 27.

Favorite spot for breakfast in Cambridge?

During the day, I've got seventeen things going on. I eat at the closest places on Mass Ave. I probably have half my meals at Grafton Street and the other half at Yenching Restaurant down the street, with a few trips over to JP Licks for coffee.

Are there three books that have made you cry? Laugh?

As a book lover, I'm steeped in tradition. I've always been fascinated by the transcendentalists – people like Emerson and Thoreau – and then the New England thinkers who came after them like William James, but when I think about bookselling, the person I often think about is Elizabeth Peabody. She was part of the transcendentalist movement but she also had a bookstore -- Elizabeth Peabody's West Street Bookstore in downtown Boston where Margaret Fuller held her salons (she called them ‘Conversations’). I think that any bookseller really aspires to be part of the cultural fabric of this city in the spirit of Lizzie Peabody. 

One of the books I recently reread which really moved me was Little Women.  I also read a wonderful biography of Louisa May and her father Bronson Alcott called Eden's Outcasts. It’s a wonderful biography of both Louisa May and her father, who was part of the transcendentalist movement and a friend of Thoreau and Emerson.  As a bookseller I can't help thinking about the New England books and literature: Emerson and Thoreau and Lizzie Peabody and Margaret Fuller and Bronson and Louisa May Alcott.

And in the same vein, one of my favorite contemporary novels is March by Geraldine Brooks where she tells the story of Father March during the period of Little Women when he was off in the war.

The Harvard Bookstore is on 1265 Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge, MA. Their website where they sell books and list events is

Editor’s Note:

On February 3 in TheAtlantic, Peter Osnos writes in his article The Endangered Fate of Barnes and Noble:

I thought that Alexandra Petri, in a blog for The Washington Post,captured the prevailing spirit many of us feel about the fate of Barnes & Noble in an open letter to the company. "I think it is time we staged an intervention," she wrote, "I am saying this on behalf of all your friends: the Publishing Industry, Book-Lovers Everywhere and--well pretty much everyone but We gathered this weekend and decided it was time we spoke up. We lost Borders. We cannot bear to lose you too." 

Also, Maryanne Wolf wrote a book called Proust and the Squid where she talks about the importance of reading immersion and the science of the reading brain.