Today is the last day of University Press Week. We’ve been sharing posts from our university press community across the world, and today we’re contributing a little more. Recently the MIT Press Bookstore moved from it’s location on Main Street in Kendall Square, Cambridge, to Mass. Ave. in Cambridge. Justin Kehoe, a member of our editorial department and former MIT Press Bookstore employee, reflected on the move and the changes.
On Wednesday I attended the opening celebration for the MIT Press Bookstore’s new location at 301 Massachusetts Ave. On my way, I stopped into the Darwins next door for a sandwich and overheard the gentleman at the register and a customer engaged in conversation about the bookstore. Both evidently fans of the store, they were excited about the new location. I thought: “that’s a really good sign.” Working for the bookstore for six years at its old location in Kendall Square (before moving to the Acquisitions department at the Press), I rarely overheard conversations about the bookstore while waiting for my lunch at say Au Bon Pain, or Clover in Kendall Square.
Sitting directly across the street from the MIT COOP (the official bookstore of MIT) and situated above ground-level in an office building, the MIT Press Bookstore’s Kendall Square location from 1980 to October 20, 2016 (RIP) was some mix of quirky, ersatz, and charming—and definitely the product of old, pre-tech-boom, Kendall Square. It was beloved by those who “got it” and a source of confusion for those who just wanted MIT insignia merchandise or who shopped at bookstores where “non-fiction” was roughly synonymous with Memoir and Biography. It had a lot of that small bookstore charm: warm but dim lighting, cramped space, weird reflective panels on the ceiling, a helpful and knowledgeable staff, and an idiosyncratic yet carefully cultivated selection of books in subject areas that complement the MIT Press’s own publishing program (no fiction; heavy on Computer Science, Neuro- and Cognitive Science, Digital Culture, History and Philosophy of Science, Politics, Environment, Art, Architecture, and Design). I had worked at a half dozen bookstores prior to starting at the MIT Press Bookstore—my wife and I met while working together at Harvard Book Store—but the MIT Press Bookstore taught me more about books than any of the other jobs I’d had combined.
The future of the bookstore’s Main Street location had been in question for a few years, while the Kendall Square of old Cambridge rapidly transforms into its current iteration as an “Innovation Center.” So, it’s really great to not only see the store find a new home (while Kendall Square sorts out its whole deal), but also to see it land in this great new space and in a location where the places surrounding it are energized by its presence. The new store trades in a cramped, dimly lit space, tucked awkwardly into an office building for an open, spacious, well-lit, ground-level location. Also new to this location is an Espresso book machine—the bookstore can now print its own instant, print-on-demand books. Where the old store had a couple of rickety wooden chairs tucked into barely person-sized corners, the new store has comfortable Herman Miller lounge chairs in an open, uncluttered reading area. John Jenkins, always a champion of the MIT community as well as that of the greater Boston and Cambridge area, is looking forward to finally having the space for in-store readings, signings, and other events. And of course, the same great stock (but with more visible faceouts—the art, architecture, and design sections finally receive the display space they need) and knowledgeable booksellers are what make the store truly great.
I will miss things about the old store: the intensity of the semi-annual MIT Press Dock Sale (which I worked all but one time in the last 11 years); fighting with John about the music volume; the aforementioned, weird reflective ceiling panels; closing an empty store in the dead of winter while listening to Richard Hawley. But that’s just nostalgia from someone who hasn’t had to actually shelve a book there in five years. The new location is a promising and invigorating change at a particularly embattled time for bookstores.