Wednesday, July 17, 2024

A browser at the Harvard Book Store in Cambridge’s Harvard Square on Wednesday. (Photo: Julia Levine)

The Harvard Book Store recently scuttled an expansion to Boston’s Prudential Center but now has the chance to reinvest in its flagship Cambridge location.

The store announced in July 2022 that it would take over a nearly 30,000-square-foot space in the Pru that previously housed a Barnes & Noble. According to Jeffrey Mayersohn, a co-owner of the Cambridge institution, the store started working on plans for the expansion during the pandemic. That second location, Mayersohn said, would have included a cafe and greatly increased the store’s total retail space.

The expansion became unfeasible, Mayersohn said. Like many other projects in the past few years, construction faced ultimately fatal rising inflation and supply-chain issues.

“It took longer and longer to build the store. There were constant disruptions, and the cost of everything went up,” Mayersohn said. “It got to the point where we decided that this was no longer a viable commercial entity. It was a very difficult decision.”

Even revising the project’s scope wasn’t enough to save it, Mayersohn said. He and his co-owners couldn’t devise a less ambitious plan that would justify the costs.

“At the end of the day, we couldn’t make it work,” Mayersohn said.

From physicist to bookstore owner

Harvard Book Store co-owner Jeffrey Mayersohn on Wednesday. (Photo: Julia Levine)

Mayersohn is a Harvard- and Yale-educated physicist worked in computer science from the late 1970s to the late 2000s, helping develop the Internet and its applications in telecommunications.

After a successful career as an engineer and researcher, Mayersohn saw a chance to pursue his lifelong dream of owning a bookstore. He and his wife, Linda Seamonson, stepped up in 2008 when Frank Kramer, who had run the shop for more than four decades, decided to sell.

Mayersohn said he had been a customer of the bookstore long before he bought it. He recalled bringing his young children for a “family adventure” nearly every weekend.

“It seemed to have magic to it,” Mayersohn said of the store. “I always had the experience there that I would find a book that seemed to be just written for me.”

About 12 years into Mayersohn’s ownership of the store, the Covid pandemic and its accompanying lockdowns hit, straining the store’s finances. After reading of the struggles, John Henry, owner of the Boston Red Sox and The Boston Globe, offered to help. Mayersohn sold a stake in the business to Henry, who has since been a co-owner of the store.

“Very early on in our discussions, we together developed this dream of a major bookstore, a branch of Harvard Book Store, not a separate entity, in downtown Boston,” Mayersohn said about their partnership.

Reinvesting in Cambridge

The end of a Boston expansion plan has put the Harvard Book Store’s focus on renovations. (Photo: Julia Levine)

Though Mayersohn and Henry’s dream of expansion is on hold, they now have a chance to upgrade the Cambridge location.

One of the store’s most important functions, Mayersohn said, is as an event space for author readings. The store hosts about 300 events per year, some in larger venues but many in the 5,600-square-foot shop.

“I went to a wonderful event last night for Margot Livesey, who’s a local writer, for her new novel, and the store was packed,” he said.

To better accommodate popular author events, Mayersohn plans to upgrade the store’s lighting and audio systems and fixtures and renovate the staff break room.

“There’s so many things to make that a more engaging place both for customers and for staff,” Mayersohn said of the store.

Given the issues at the Prudential, Mayersohn was hesitant to divulge timelines or more plans, though he confirmed an architect is at work. He has also heard from some customers that they don’t want to see drastic changes to the iconic store, which moved to its current location in 1950.

And while an expansion is off the table for now, Mayersohn said, he would still like to open a second location.

“We’re not starting on that immediately. We’re going to keep our focus on the Cambridge store for a while,” he said. “But it’s certainly something we’re talking about.”