During the Golden Age of bookselling in the early 1980s, Cambridge’s Harvard Square boasted that it had more bookstores in a few short blocks than any other city in the country. Since then some have closed, like Paperback Booksmith and WordsWorth Books. But two general bookstores and six specialty retailers, including Curious George Books & Toys, which was originally part of WordsWorth, remain. Among them they have amassed 562 years in business and carry 327,500 titles.

“I’m not going to be a Pollyanna and say it’s as good as it ever was,” said Pat Carrier, co-owner of the Globe Corner Bookstore, one of the first travel stores to add a full-service Web store (www.globecorner.com). “The world no longer needs a regional book-shopping center. On the other hand, there was a lot of duplication. Now you’ve got a handful of some of the nation’s leading specialty stores. There’s probably no other place in the country that can support that range.”

Despite a scaled-back presence, books continue to dominate the Square. Two years ago, when Globe Corner was forced to relocate, the Carriers opted for the Square over Boston’s Back Bay. And in a survey conducted last year by Harvard University’s Planning Office on favorite places to shop, Harvard Book Store and the Harvard Coop ranked number one and two, respectively, beating out restaurants, clothing stores and gift shops.

For Harvard Book Store general manager Carole Horne, the biggest change in bookselling in the Square is how the store reaches its customers. “We have 35,000 people who get our e-mail newsletter. More and more academics are going to the Internet for their books. And we’re seeing more tourists because of the economics of travel to the U.S.,” she said.

Cambridge’s Local First movement, cofounded by Harvard Book Store owner Frank Kramer, has also had an impact. Since its launch two and a half years ago, Horne has noticed a difference. At Christmas, for example, customers made a point of telling booksellers that they were choosing to shop there over Amazon.

Across the Square, the Coop, founded by Harvard students in 1882, continues to be one of the few academic bookstores with a strong commitment to trade books. “If you look at the college market,” noted president Jerry Murphy, “trade books are under 10%. In our case, it’s different because of being in a book mecca in Harvard Square.”

Still, Murphy is closely watching developments on the college side, like POD, e-books and distance learning, and gauging what they could mean for trade. Although the Coop lists very few books on its Web site (store.thecoop.com), that will change in the fall. Murphy plans to start by putting textbooks online for the 2008—09 academic year. If all goes well, trade books could soon follow.

Since 1995, Barnes & Noble College has handled the store’s staffing and inventory, although the Coop continues to brand itself under its own name. “We wanted to leverage the systems and know-how of Barnes & Noble with our name, location and customer base,” Murphy said. “Quite frankly, the Harvard name is more important than Barnes & Noble.” The Coop gave its members an 8% rebate last year, the highest in 19 years.

Reaching out for sales over the Internet can have a down side, as Schoenhof’s Foreign Books, its sister store, Europa Foreign Books in Chicago, and its distribution arm, Midwestern European Publications, learned last fall. Hackers in Russia or China, said general director Daniel Eastman, tried to steal credit card info. No information was lost, but the site was destroyed. The new site (www.schoenhofs.com) will go live this month.

In addition to upgrading the Web site, much of Schoenhof’s efforts since it was acquired by MEP in 2005 has been directed toward integrating systems, especially for distribution to schools and libraries. “What we’re working on now,” Eastman said, “is updating inventory and making the store more appealing to the local market.” In the coming year Eastman plans to increase the selection of Chinese and other Asian-language titles and to balance academic titles with mass market. “We can’t stay solely academic and expect to survive another 150 years,” Eastman said.

Another specialty store that has been looking to find the best way forward since its purchase is 81-year-old Grolier Poetry Book Shop. Before poet and philosophy professor Ifeanyi Menkiti bought the store in March 2006, the inventory had dwindled precipitously. Now, according to general manager Daniel Wuenschel, the challenge is to reestablish relationships with publishers and to broaden stock. Working section by section with local faculty, Wuenschel has already added Korean, African and Italian poetry.

Under Menkiti’s ownership, Grolier is also getting more deeply involved in the poetry life of Greater Boston and the Square. Its front window has been turned into a community bulletin board, with announcements of upcoming poetry events. The store is seeking nonprofit status to sponsor an ambitious events schedule of its own, which includes an Irish poetry festival early next year.

To bring more customers to the Harvard University Press Display Room, which is tucked back in Holyoke Center, manager Jeff Flemming has tried to create a more “retail-y” atmosphere while maintaining the Harvard aesthetic of oriental rugs and Harvard chairs. In recent years, the Display Room has added catchier window displays and more in-store displays and faceouts, while it continues to fill orders for neighboring booksellers for fast-moving titles and special orders.

Revolution Books, which supports the Revolutionary Communist Party, has been in Harvard Square for most of its 29 years and is determined to stay. However, unlike its neighbors, it relies on volunteer staff and had to cut back its hours to three afternoons a week. “Before 9/11 we used to be able to pay the rent just on sales. Now you can’t,” said volunteer Jane Sullivan. To stay afloat and to order stock, Revolution relies on donations and tables at events.

Although Revolution Books’ situation may be extreme, given today’s economic climate, it’s certainly a challenging time for bookstores, said Harvard Book Store’s Horne. Still, booksellers agreed that being in the Square gives them a chance to succeed that other stores may not have. “I don’t think we would do as well anywhere else in the world,” Eastman said.

Pop Goes the Book Business
Both pop culture and comics stores have flourished in Harvard Square for the past four decades. At 34, Million Year Picnic is one of the oldest independent comics specialty stores in the country; while 30-year-old Newbury Comics, which is often cited as one of the largest regional music chains—with 28 stores—also moves a lot of periodical comics, graphic novels, manga and anime—so much so that Newbury Comics will open its first superstore in June, which will have a store within a store devoted just to comics and graphic novels.

“We’re facing the same problems as bookstores,” said Million Year Picnic owner Tony Davis, who points specifically to a graying readership. “When I see the comics companies recruiting [such novelists as] Jonathan Lethem and Michael Chabon, they’re targeting an older, hipper audience.” In recent years, Davis’s store has come to resemble a bookstore in other ways as well, especially since sales have migrated from 95% traditional comics periodicals in 1974 to 65% book-format graphic novels today. Over the coming year. he plans to remodel to make graphic novels more prominent.

New England Comics, which has seven stores, is planning a similar makeover for its Harvard Square store, according to manager Benn Robbins. The idea is make more space for trade paperbacks and non-Spandex comics. “What trades did,” Robbins said, “was obliterate the back-issue market.” Currently, back issues of comics periodicals account for only 3% of New England’s business, while 50%—70% is graphic novels and trade paperbacks.

At 15, Tokyo Kid is the last anime store standing in the Square. The store, noted owner Andrew Cocuaco, has suffered from decreased foot traffic in general and the mainstreaming of anime. “Now,” he said, “you can walk into Best Buy and buy an anime CD.” Four years ago, Cocuaco diversified his inventory and added manga, which, coupled with DVDs, CDs and action figures, has balanced out sales.

But pop/comics stores aren’t the only outlets selling books. As publishers have long known, Urban Outfitters may not carry many books, but it can move a lot of copies. The second store in the 119-store chain, and one of its most successful, is located in the Square. Its book section ranges from the hardcover tie-in to Bravo’s reality series, Top Chef: The Cookbook (Chronicle), to paperbacks like It’s Easy Being Green (Gibbs-Smith).—J.R.