Welcome to Harvard Square and to the newly renovated Harvard Coop, which bills itself as “the official bookstore” of this “storied” academic community.
Just inside the front door, where the shelves of books by Harvard faculty members used to be, there are shelves of baseball caps that say “Harvard.” The wall that used to be lined with books about science is now lined with sweatshirts that say “Harvard.” The tables that used to be piled high with new fiction and nonfiction are piled with sweatshirts and T-shirts. There are maroon ones and gray ones and navy ones and white ones. Some have hoods and some don’t. There are long-sleeved ones and short-sleeved ones. Some of them say “Harvard.” Some say “H.” Some say “Harvard University.” Some have an “H” surrounded by a shield. Some say “Veritas.”
What used to be rich sections of books on African, Asian, and Latin American history are now wall-to-wall Harvard T-shirts. The former US history section is filled with Harvard T-shirts and plaid flannel Harvard nightshirts. The theater section, which was especially deep on Shakespeare, has been replaced by a wall of stuffed teddy bears wearing Harvard T-shirts. Where the poetry used to be there are embossed wallets that say “Harvard,” mouse pads and iPhone cases that say “Harvard,” and key chains dangling tiny stuffed frogs, lobsters, elephants, and eagles all wearing tiny T-shirts that say “Harvard.”
The books on popular and classical music have been replaced by metal putting cups; the ramp that leads the golf ball into the cup says “Harvard,” and then it says “Harvard” again inside the cup, as if the ball might have become disoriented during the inch-long journey up the ramp and need to be reminded where it is. There are Harvard shot glasses and spoons, Harvard lanyards and water bottles, Harvard medallions and lapel pins and coasters. The old children’s book section is now a children’s sweatshirt and T-shirt section, with a single table of children’s books labeled “For your future freshman.” There are still a few books on the ground floor, mostly books about how to get into Harvard.
The old Coop was a comprehensive four-story bookstore, functionally and symbolically aligned with what is arguably America’s greatest university. It was a broad bookstore and a smart bookstore, big enough to keep in stock the classics that many bookstores don’t have on hand. And the selection was unusual and eclectic, featuring many books from small presses and university presses.
Now in order to find the books, you have to go upstairs to the second and third floors, where each section is a shrunken and dispiriting version of its former self.
By virtue of its architecture and its location, the Coop is the flagship store of Harvard Square. It served not only the Harvard community, but also the very bookish city of Cambridge. Now it’s a souvenir stand — a tourist trap designed to make a quick buck off people who are just passing through. Harvard is nothing more than a logo.
One might wonder if the coronavirus pandemic called for drastic retrenchment. But many bookstores have found ways to maintain and even increase their business during the pandemic; the American Booksellers Association reports that 55 percent of independent bookstores have higher sales today than in 2019, and bookstore sales in June 2021 were the best they’ve been since 2013. The two other great bookstores in Cambridge, the Harvard Book Store and Porter Square Books, appear to be thriving. The goal of the Coop renovation, according to a corporate press release from Barnes & Noble, the longtime manager of the store, is to provide “a better, more exciting customer shopping experience” which “now features a wide selection of high-quality Harvard-branded apparel and merchandise as well as textbooks, trade books and school supplies.”
The Coop already had a big sweatshirt store, located around the corner from the main building. It’s still there, still open, packed with some of the same sweatshirts and T-shirts and some different ones that say “Harvard Law School,” “Harvard Business School,” “Harvard Graduate School of Design,” “Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health,” and “Harvard Extension School.” On a recent afternoon there were several staff members folding T-shirts and sweatshirts, but not a customer in sight.
There didn’t appear to be many customers in the old bookstore building, either. The renovated Coop is an embarrassment and a travesty. They’ve replaced a center of knowledge with a merchandise mart that trivializes and commodifies the trappings of learning. There’s a lonely quote on the wall from Gertrude Stein (Radcliffe class of 1898): “Writing and reading is to me synonymous with existence.” It seems more likely that if she had wandered into this place and looked around, she would have said, “A sweatshirt is a sweatshirt is a sweatshirt.”
Joan Wickersham is the author of “The Suicide Index” and “The News from Spain.” Her column appears regularly in the Globe.