Business, Features

Harvard Book Store publicizes financial struggle, receives outpour of support

Hundreds of local businesses have steadily lost revenue during the pandemic without their usual foot traffic, and Harvard Book Store is among them.

Harvard Book Store is one of many businesses struggling to make money due to the COVID-19 pandemic. COURTESY OF EDWARD EL VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

In an open letter to the community on Oct. 15, Harvard Book Store owners Jeff Mayersohn and Linda Seamonson wrote the store has been struggling financially, a common issue many independent bookstores in the United States now face.

“The imbalance between revenue and expenses represents a threat to our continued existence,” they wrote. “Indeed, a number of our fellow merchants in Harvard Square have permanently closed, including many that have existed for decades.”

Mayersohn said in an interview the bookstore has continued to lose money each month, despite expenses not having fluctuated much. This is because the store saw a significant dip in revenue.

Richard Huang is a stock associate for Harvard Book Store, and while he isn’t working in person now, he said the shop’s capacity isn’t what it used to be. Fewer people are shopping brick and mortar.

“I have some employee friends who are actually working in the actual store, and they tell me that not many people come to the store anymore because of the pandemic,” Huang said. “That I saw for sure.”

The challenges of social distancing have pushed Harvard Book Store, which was founded in 1932, to adjust its focus toward e-commerce, Huang said.

“We don’t get that many orders anymore in person. It’s still very dangerous during this pandemic, as cases are rising,” Huang said. “I’ve seen a shift toward online orders.”

The customer experience has changed drastically, Huang added, as shoppers now limit contact with employees and their time in the store.

“Usually, the customers take a long time to browse everything, ask questions,” Huang said. “It’s now rushed, more quick, where they come in, get what they want and leave.”

Nonetheless, Mayersohn said the employees at Harvard Book Store are dedicating heavy efforts toward optimizing the shopping experience for customers who visit its physical location.

“We want to stay in business,” Mayersohn said, “but our highest priority is to make sure that we’re maintaining a safe environment, both for our staff and the customers.”

Mayersohn said one employee maintains the limited store occupancy and ensures customers are masked. The store has also added plexiglass in places where customers and employees interact.

For the upcoming holiday season, Mayersohn proposes people buy early, which would help revitalize the bookstore’s revenues. On Saturday, the bookstore will host another Virtual Warehouse Sale as part of this mission to “shop early and shop local,” according to the letter.

“Hopefully, by asking people to shop over a two-and-a-half month period,” Mayersohn said, “that will generate a high level of sales so that we can keep going into next year.”

Despite potential monetary concerns, Mayersohn said he was shocked by the outpour of support the store received from loyal customers: it received orders for thousands of books after the letter was released.

“That was very humbling and gratifying,” Mayersohn said. “The response has really been overwhelming.”

Beyond selling books, Harvard Book Store also hopes to become a “cultural center for the community,” Mayersohn said. The store hosts more than 400 in-store “author talks” each year — their most recent one being a virtual discussion with Jack Halberstam on Wednesday.

“It is a very serious commitment to keep the conversation going in the community,” Mayersohn said.

As the store functions as both a retailer and an educational community center in Cambridge, Mayersohn said, it also relies on personal interactions rather than algorithms to choose books for its customers, unlike larger online booksellers.

“We provide a valuable customer service in connecting people with books that we think they’ll love,” Mayersohn said, “and also serving as a community center for the exchange of ideas.”

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