Raven Used Books is leaving on a high note: Square could ‘support 10 other bookstores’
In the recent narrative of Harvard Square, retailers are forced out by rent increases that can’t be met as shoppers spend online and foot traffic drops off. But Raven Used Books leaves Harvard Square this summer as a success story.
Raven does a “very brisk business” that’s hard to keep up with, turning over around one-third of books on store shelves each month, owner John Petrovato said Thursday. “My body suffers from the physical strain” of keeping up with stocking the location, at 23 Church St.
At either the end of June or end of August, Petrovato will relocate what remains in Harvard Square to a new Western Massachusetts location in Shelburne Falls, in a former mill by a waterfall that he called a “spectacular space with lots of light – and big, already four times the current size” of Raven in Cambridge, with an option to double the space. It’ll be similar to his first shop, the Montague Book Mill, he said, and have the benefit of being more convenient personally, including being five minutes from his kids’ school. Raven itself started in Northampton.
“My life is out in Southern Vermont and Western Massachusetts, so it’s been grueling” to run Raven in Cambridge, Petrovato said. Despite that, moving “was an extremely difficult decision. It took me months to make.”
He’s about half-done getting the new store together – which could be stocked just from the 100,000 books he has in storage, Petrovato said.
The new Raven will just add to Shelburne Falls’ luster as a destination for book nerds, joining two other bookshops in a town of some 1,800 people. “There’s a big reading culture in Western Massachusetts,” Petrovato said.
But as a bookseller since 1994 – he opened Raven in Cambridge in 2005 – he knows Harvard Square has historically had the same qualities. The square had 25 bookshops in 1970s and 1980s, he said.
“Last year was one of our best years, so closing wasn’t about business,” Petrovato said. “Harvard Square right now could support 10 other bookstores.”
What gets in the way of that is the high rents charged by many Harvard Square property owners and managers. With Raven’s landlords being the neighboring Christian Science Reading Room since 2015, that hasn’t been a problem; Petrovato praised the Christian Scientists as being wonderful landlords more concerned about serving the community than making a profit, and said he was happy that they seemed intent on extending that legacy to the next occupants of his space.
“We are the ones attempting to leave on earlier side,” Petrovato said, calling his landlords “incredibly generous with us over the years – and actually saved the store during the early months of the pandemic by giving us many months of free rent followed by low rents when we were not open regularly. They have been very supportive.”
There are a couple of locally owned business that have expressed interest in the space, and the full full membership will have to decide the next tenant within the coming weeks, said Elliott Reinert, librarian of the reading room. At least one candidate is a Harvard Square retailer looking for more space, Petrovato said – “a good shop, another Harvard Square shop.”
“Our goal is to find someone else who needs the same situation [as Raven] and is locally owned,” Reinert said. Supporting a small business “is one of the things we’re able to do as not a big corporation that’s not charging New York prices.”
Denise Jillson, executive director of the Harvard Square Business Association, said it was “hard to see Raven go,” and a little “frustrating when you see successful store close” – especially when seeing a bookstore close could be taken as a sign of the times. If it must be replaced, she said she knew many people wished Harvard Square would see the return of a general hardware store, which it’s been lacking since Dickson Bros. True Value closed in the summer of 2020, during the Covid pandemic.
There might be enough new information from the Christian Science Reading Room within the next couple of weeks to announce a closing date for Raven in the square, Petrovato said.
“The outpouring of support since I announced the closing made me realize how much I’ve loved be in Cambrdge,” Petrovato said. “It’s an amazing place.”
This post was updated May 30, 2023, to correct the period that Dickson Bros. True Value closed.