When Sarah Jensen and her sister were young girls, their favorite book was Ethel Parton's Penelope Ellen, in which a child is delighted to receive, as a Christmas present, a copy of the 1840 edition of Peter Parley's Annual, the popular 19th-century children's periodical. Last December, Sarah's eyes glistened with emotion as we printed a copy of that Annual on Harvard Book Store's Espresso Book Machine. Her plan was to surprise her sister with the volume on Christmas Day, decades after reading the book as children and 159 years after the young protagonist received the very same gift.
Sarah's experience is not unique among our customers. Our Espresso Book Machine, which our customers lovingly named Paige M. Gutenborg ("Paige" for short), has served as a literary time machine, enabling readers to obtain perfect-bound copies of antiquarian books that were previously prohibitively expensive or impossible to acquire. Jim Henle, a local poet, found a biography of his ancestor, Jacob Henle, a 19th-century physician and anatomist who was a pioneer in the germ theory of disease. Another customer, a telegraphy enthusiast, was able to print the 1891 potboiler Anglo-American Telegraphic Code to Cheapen Telegraphy and to Furnish a Complete Cypher For Use in General Correspondence Including Business, Social, Political and Other Subjects of Correspondence. This gargantuan work is essentially a 400-page list of the telegraph equivalents of such Internet acronyms as BFF and LOL.
Our store employees have found some amazing treasures in Paige's database of more than four million books. There is a copy of the original handwritten manuscript of Alice's Adventures Under Ground, the very document that Lewis Carroll gave to Alice Liddell in 1864. In the 1880s, Reverend Dodgson asked the grown-up Alice to return the original so that he could photograph and publish it as a fund-raiser for London children's hospitals. The copy that we print in our store has a Harvard Library stamp indicating that it was received in 1887.
The first book that we printed on Paige was the Bay Psalm Book, the first book printed in English-speaking North America. The original was printed on Stephen Daye's press in Cambridge, about a hundred yards from the location of our store, almost four centuries ago. There are 11 extant copies of Daye's original printing. Now any customer can own a scan of the original book.
But Paige has not only served as a vehicle to connect with the literature of the past; it enables what we believe to be an important part of the future of publishing and bookselling. We are currently working with around 100 authors to print their own works spanning all genres. In fact, self-published works make up around 75% of the 1,500 or so books that we are printing every month on Paige.
Steve Almond, a local writer with a national reputation, has written three short books, including collections of Letters from People Who Hate Me and Bad Poetry. We held a reading for the first book that Steve printed on Paige, This Won't Take but a Minute, Honey. Steve was able to sign around 100 still-warm books just after they flew down Paige's exit chute. Sonja Maneri has written Love Notes and Love Lines in memory of her husband, Joe Maneri, a musician and music teacher at the New England Conservatory. Missy Carter addresses the meaning of life in her Living Lines, a beautiful collection of wisdom sayings. The Biker Poets & Writers Association has printed Verse and Steel: High Speed Poetry, an anthology of works by biker poets, writers, and photographers. Knocking on Doors presents the reminiscences of VISTA volunteers from the '60s and early '70s.
Our machine has also given young, new writers a first opportunity to see their works in print and read before an audience. We held a short-short story–writing contest for which we received several hundred entries. We chose what we thought were the best works and printed them in a small book called Microchondria, allowing the winning entrants to read their stories to an audience of around 100 customers. Microchondria was among our bestselling books in 2010.
What strikes me as fascinating is that the antiquarian works that we are printing are available for free as digital downloads through Google. Similarly, any of the self-published works could simply be posted on the Web. Undoubtedly many of these works will be downloaded as e-books, but for many readers and for writers, the allure of paper remains. Watching the joy on their faces leads one inevitably to the conclusion that we still cherish the experience of the printed word, preserved for eternity in the pages of a book.
Jeff Mayersohn and his wife, Linda Seamonson, own the Harvard Book Store in Cambridge, Mass.