How Harvard Book Store combines the best of digital bookselling with the best of physical bookselling

Phil Johnson writes in Forbes about the unlikely (and quite wonderful) success of the Harvard Book Store, an absolutely terrific independent bookstore that was bought by Jeff Mayersohn, a high-tech entrepreneur who was determined to exploit the advantages of a great physical location along with print-on-demand, instant gratification.

Essentially, Jeff installed a printing press to close the inventory gap with Amazon. The Espresso Book Machine sits in the middle of Harvard Book Store like a hi-tech visitor to an earlier era. 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. The Espresso Book Machine can be also used for custom publishing, a growing source of revenue, and customers can order books in the store and on-line.

You can walk into the store, request an out-of-print, or hard-to-find title, and a bookseller can print that book for you in approximately four minutes. Ben Franklin would be impressed.

But you don’t even have to go into the store to get a book. If you live in Cambridge and neighboring communities, you can order online and get any book delivered the same day by an eco-friendly Metroped “pedal-truck,” or a bicycle, as I like to call them. Beat that Amazon.

Marketers know that success comes from a complex formula, and Jeff’s strategy includes many moving parts. Harvard Book Store pays fanatical attention to customer service with an unrivaled staff of passionate and educated booksellers. They have spent years building a local brand. They bring people together with over 300 public events a year. They’re exceptional retailers with a frequent buyer program. They understand technology, and you can expect them to continually adapt.

I was so impressed by Harvard Book Store -- especially the shelves they'd dedicated to rare and odd treasures from the unplumbably vast Google public domain repository as a sample of the kind of thing you could have made to order in minutes.

The Man Who Took on Amazon and Saved a Bookstore (via Making Light)


  1. The best non-used bookstore in the Boston metro area.  Thanks for highlighting it Cory!

      1. OK, “the best book store that doesn’t exclusively sell used books in the Boston metro area.”  I appreciate your pedantry.

        1. I wasn’t trying to be a pedant. I was trying to add useful information. I’ve spoken with people that had no idea the HBS sold used books. I love that bookstore and I especially love the basement. Like you I was happy to see it highlighted.

          1.  Fair enough.  Actually, I didn’t know they sold used books so your information is useful to me too.  Sorry to be a curmudgeon.  I need to get laid or something.

          2.  Crankery is just how we say hello up here in New England. The result is a novel constitution and set of laws about just exactly, specifically, precisely how much crap we can legally give one another.

    1. The best non-used bookstore in the Boston metro area.

      I’d have a hard time choosing between HBS and Brookline Booksmith, but that’s just a quibble. We are abundantly blessed. I’m a member of HBS, and was just in there yesterday, buying some Raymond Chandler and some Felix Gilman.

  2. Right next door to HBS is Grolier Poetry Book Shop, touted as the oldest poetry bookstore in continuous operation in the US. The best-selling title at Grolier last year, “POEMS” by Ben Mazer (published by our Pen & Anvil Press, as at is printed on the HBS Espresso Book Machine. A fun bit of synergy.

  3. Every neighborhood library should have a Espresso Book Machine (in addition to decent coffee)!

  4. I love the Harvard Bookstore, and I’m glad they’re doing clever things to further their success. But this Meyersohn guy could be Gutenberg reincarnate, and nothing he did would mean anything compared to the fact that it’s a bookstore called “The Harvard Bookstore” right across the street from frickin’ HARVARD

    Harvard isn’t really a tourist attraction. Other than taking your picture with John Harvard’s statue, there’s not much to see. But hundreds of thousands of people a year wander around the Square just to bask in the aura of old-school smartness. Of course they’re going to buy books while they’re there!

    Again, this isn’t a critique. It’s a great bookstore. But even as I’d like to see less fortunate venues try out some of these ideas, we shouldn’t take HBS’ success as an indicator that they’re surefire winners.

    (ETA: Rindan, people only find out that Harvard isn’t Hogwarts-with-Cornel-West once they actually visit, which they do by the boatload. I used to work at a private residence about a half mile past the Divinity School, which is to say a decent hike from the Square, and I’d still see confused tourists wondering when they’d happen upon the picture-postcard college campus they were sure must exist.)

      1. I don’t think he’s saying it’s a failure, just that the store’s business model might not be something that could be replicated someplace else.

        1. Fair interpretation, but to survive as an independant in that real estate market, over the last 20 years as Harvard Square has turned into a giant mall, does mean, to me at least, that they are doing something very right beyond merely being in the right place.

    1. Does anyone actually consider Harvard a square some sort of Mecca for intellectual l337ness? Harvard square is filled with a lot of people with nothing to do with Harvard. Charlie’s, Shay’s, the Garage, Clover, the Democracy Center, the half a dozen ice cream and froyo ships, etc…do any of these scream Harvard intellectual snobbery? Maybe I’m just blind to it because I live in the neighborhood, and have blocked it out, but if you come to Harvard Square Looking for archetypal Harvardness, you are going to leave disappointed.

  5. The last time but one that I was at HBS was for your signing/reading of Makers. I should really head back there some time and get a book Espresso-printed. (I live closer to another indy bookstore, Brookline Booksmith, that gets the bulk of my book money.)

  6. The last time but one that I was at HBS was for your signing/reading of Makers. I should really head back there some time and get a book Espresso-printed. (I live closer to another indy bookstore, Brookline Booksmith, that gets the bulk of my book money.)

  7. Potentially interesting fact: not actually Harvard’s bookstore.  That would be the [Harvard] Coop, a couple of blocks up Mass Ave. 

    Also, Harvard Bookstore was smart/timely enough to have grabbed the domain, before the university got all trademarky… 

    They have doggie treats behind the counter, too.

  8. I love this book store and picked up a copy of The Illustrated London Cookery Book & Complete Housekeeper that was printed on Paige M. Guttenborg, while I was there in 2012. Co-owner Linda Seamonson was nice enough to walk me through the process of printing a book on Paige…

  9. Am I the only one who’s blown away by this Espresso Book Machine? I mean, it’s not an amazing invention as such, but it’s one of those why-didn’t-I-think-of-its, and something of a game-changer, I bet…

    1.  It’s certainly a player, but not yet a game-changer: the materials science is still catching up a bit. To print the books in a manner timely enough to be called “on demand,” these machines need to use a quick-setting ink on the glossy covers. The combined qualities of the ink’s penetration of the cover stock, and its quick-dry formula, produce a result that is somewhat tacky (sticky, not gauche).

      Many, many books on the shelves of your average retail location are printed using “on-demand” or just-in-time processes, which are similar to the Espresso system in most regards –> the PDF file delivery, the workflow management software, the bookblock printing, the glued bindings. The major difference at the moment is these covers. When a paperback book is printed in an industrial location, the cover is printed using standard inks and coatings, and given time to dry to a hard finish.

      Some happy chemist is going to make a lot of money, figuring out how to perfect the problem of tacky covers on POD retail location machines…

        1. (Cheers to the happy chemist!) Slipcover? Nothing like that involved, either with the POD books printed by industrial production houses like Lightning Source, or the POD books printed on retail machines like those at Harvard Book Store. In both cases, I’m speaking about softcover books with heat-glue bindings.

          1. Well, sure; but a slipcover would cost time and money at the moment of printiing; whereas consumables (ink and paper) with the desired properties would not. The goal is to print a book in a few minutes that is as durable as a softcover printed through conventional means.

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