Tuesday, July 16, 2024

The Rodney’s sign has a home inside the Harvard Square version of the bookstore. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Having Raven Used Books replaced by Rodney’s Bookstore is a gift for Harvard Square and the wider area, and an announced opening at noon Friday means only a couple of weeks will have passed between booksellers on Church Street – though it’s been a longer than expected time in which Cambridge has been without Rodney’s, which closed in Central Square in October 2020.

We stopped by Wednesday and talked briefly with owner Shaw Taylor about his return and what shoppers can expect. Here’s what we learned.


Rodney’s might not have made it back to Cambridge. Taylor didn’t expect Rodney’s to be closed for nearly three years, but realized there was no point to looking for a new shop during the Covid pandemic. When he started researching the perfect location, he started with Central and Harvard squares but “called some places even in Boston. I wanted to stay in the city,” he said. He knew there were plenty of cheap places in the suburbs too, “a nice big store for cheap money – but then you have to really attract people to come. They’re already here in Harvard Square, and the crowds we’ve seen here are even more than in Central Square.” Before packing up, Raven owner John Petrovato said Harvard Square “right now could support 10 other bookstores.”

You won’t see the Rodney’s sign back – at least, not outside. The signature wooden Rodney’s sign (which honors Taylor’s dog, who died in 1996) is inside the store, atop bookshelves inherited from Petrovato. Of course Taylor looked at remounting it outside on the brick facade of the 1920 building he shares with the property owners, a Christian Science Reading Room. But that facade is due for a refresh that the church is planning with help from the Cambridge Historical Commission. There was what seemed like an obvious place to hang the sign inside the store, but the spot turned out to be just delicate wire lath and plaster over a deeply buried steel beam – and the 15-foot sign is mahogany. “And it’s heavy,” Taylor said. “It probably weighs close to 100 pounds.”

Rodney’s owner Shaw Taylor looks at the placement of his bookstore’s sign on Wednesday in Cambridge’s Harvard Square. (Photo: Marc Levy)

The mix of books will be different than Rodney’s and Raven shoppers are used to. The new Rodney’s is a quarter of the size of the Central Square location, so even with a cellar for storage Taylor has to be judicious about what’s stocked for browsers, and some categories didn’t make the cut. Books on antiques aren’t on the shelves, for instance. “Certain things were slow over the years because of the Internet,” Taylor said. “Antiques, if people want to research a thing people can access it online really fast.” And Raven shoppers will encounter a wholly different store: “John was really super scholarly, and that fits Harvard, but he didn’t have kids’ books, or cookbooks. He didn’t have gardening,” Taylor said. The mix at Rodney’s reflects Taylor’s understanding that even in the shadow of Harvard, most people read for enjoyment. Still, by necessity “every subject is condensed down” from what was possible in Central.

No one knows when Church Street will be whole. The half of Church Street closest to Massachusetts Avenue was thronged with people regularly until 2012, when AMC stopped showing films at the Harvard Square Theatre. It suffered another blow when the popular Border Cafe closed after a Dec. 1, 2019, fire. Though the folk music venue Club Passim is nearby, the Source pizza gastropub does good business and there’s ice cream and other retailers nearby, neither Taylor nor Harvard Square Business Association executive director Denise Jillson knew Wednesday when two long-awaited businesses would launch: The Painted Burro restaurant, which said in January 2022 it would fill the Border Cafe site and has seemingly completed renovations long ago; and Yamba Boutique, a similarly finished-looking cannabis shop where owner Leah Samura once expected to be selling last fall. “I don’t have any solid dates” for either business opening, Jillson said. The square’s next launch after Rodney’s is expected to be Joe’s Pizza, filling the space left empty by fellow New York chain &pizza in May 2022 at 3 Brattle St. She remains hopeful about the former theater, about which owner Gerald Chan has been silent for several years. “One thing about Gerald is that when he does something, it’s done beautifully,” Jillson said.

Rodney’s expects to be around a long time. The Christian Scientists are an excellent, longtime landlord with an interest in serving the community rather than making big profits, Petrovato and Taylor said. The stability is comforting to Taylor. “I think I’ll be here a long time – even if it’s not me, I think the store will be,” he said. “I have a couple of younger friends in the book business that, if I get to a certain point that I don’t want to do it anymore, I’ll just give it to them.”

Rodney’s Bookstore opens Friday at 23 Church St., Harvard Square, Cambridge. Hours are expected to be noon to 9 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays and noon to 8 p.m. Sundays.