At the beginning of each semester, Harvard students flock to the COOP or their Amazon shopping accounts in hopes of buying used copies of their assigned books and textbooks in order to save a few dollars. But the COOP and the internet are not the only places that one can buy books for less. Located beneath the Harvard Shop on JFK street lies a hidden gem called Raven Used Book Store. Walk down a few stairs into the basement shop and it’s immediately clear that this bookshop is no Barnes and Noble. Absent are the plush chairs and couches of most mainstream bookstores. Instead, one tired-looking, frayed brown chair with a lumpy and sun bleached red pillow stands at the end of a free-standing stack of books. Such a piece of furniture may paint the shop as ascetic and uncomfortable in one’s mind, but it is actually quite cozy and welcoming. The chair has been used, relished, and clearly sat upon many a time – it would only be fitting to read a used book while nestled in such an experienced chair.
Against an unfurnished and undecorated concrete floor and ceiling, the store’s sheer volume of books is simply impressive. They are crammed into every nook and cranny, from the ceiling to the ground, stacked horizontally and vertically; the cash register is completely hidden from view by a tall stack of novels. Volumes of literature and philosophy dominate the shelves; each of these subjects occupies an entire wall of the small store. In fact, employee Jonas Shmidt calls the philosophy volumes the “foundation” of the little shop. Rich as the shop is in Oxford Classics however, it also offers books dealing with more eclectic subjects such as Anarchism, Marxism and other social criticisms. Raven also boasts well stocked sections of volumes that critique poetry, art, and photography. Religions of the world are represented as well as stories both from and about foreign countries and distant lands. No inch of space is wasted in the shop; shelves beneath the check-out counter hold rows of foreign language references including French and other romance language translation dictionaries as well as a guide to Sanskrit Grammar. A step into Raven opens one’s eyes to strange, interesting, and often overlooked subjects.
Raven Used Books should be an oft frequented bookstore for any Harvard student or interested reader in general. Loving both literature and a good deal, I just had to purchase a copy of Jane Austin’s Sense and Sensibility – the price tag read six dollars. Delighted by my new purchase, I wondered if Raven is popular within the Harvard community or if I had stumbled upon a little-known treasure. Employee Jonas Schmidt says that although Raven has been housed in Harvard Square for nearly five years now, the majority of its clientele is not made up of Harvard students, but of professors and Cambridge residents. In fact, Raven’s clientele base has a “surprising lack of Harvard undergraduates,” who apparently visit it as a last resort when the COOP has run out of stock. From the perspective of another cash strapped college student, shouldn’t we visit places like Raven first for our required texts? When looking to buy, the difference between new and used is quality of condition. When we think of used books, we see cracked spines, annotated margins, and dog-eared pages. However, these blemishes and imperfections are absent from Raven’s books. The small shop purchases its merchandise from professors and graduate students, local residents, and sometimes even straight from the publishing companies, themselves. Therefore, the shop selects only books that are in good condition to buy and resell to its customers; my new copy of Sense and Sensibility has not a crack in its spine. Raven Used Books seems to be a haven for books that were once purchased, but never read.
The ever-wise Jerry Seinfeld once said that “a bookstore is one of the only pieces of evidence we have that people are still thinking.” As college students, we are a society of curious intellectuals, always searching for new ideas, thoughts, and words. A visit to Raven Used Books might start as a mission to find a particular book, but it will certainly turn into an exploration of the small, one-room store, because it is so rich with interesting, eclectic, and intriguing works. A single glance at the shelves is bound pique a newcomer’s interest and ensure a second visit.