March 2016 Articles

Dusting off Shelves

Volunteers Revive the Cambridge Bookstore

By Joanna Corman ’95


All photos by Ken Richardson Photography.

It used to be that if you visited the Bryn Mawr Bookstore in Cambridge in search of a Dickens’ novel, there were at least five places in the store to find it, including the paperback fiction bookcases, the hardcover fiction bookcases, and the bookcase of Modern Library editions.

Today, that novel would be catalogued under “fiction” and filed alphabetically by the author’s last name.

For former Bryn Mawr President Nancy Vickers, a bookstore volunteer and board member (and recent board vice president), that anecdote serves as an example of how the bookstore, once a cluttered shop on the cusp of closing, has blossomed into an organized, spirit-filled shop that, after a five-year hiatus, is once again fulfilling its mission of donating to the College’s financial aid fund.

The store, which sells used and rare books, began as a three-day annual book sale in 1959 co-founded by Betty Butterfield ’35 and Joan Shurcliff ’35 to raise scholarship money for Bryn Mawr students. But there were always boxes of leftover books. So, in 1970, Butterfield and Betsy Jackson ’33 leased an empty barbershop on Huron Avenue and established the store. The next year, the pair bought the building and formed a nonprofit organization.

During its 45-year history, the store has been an important contributor to the College and has given more than $1.5 million dollars to the financial aid fund. But from 2011 to 2015, it did not make enough money to donate to the scholarship fund and struggled to attract volunteers.

New bookstore board president Mary Maples Dunn M.A. ’56, Ph.D. ’59

New bookstore board president Mary Maples Dunn M.A. ’56, Ph.D. ’59

Since the spring, the store has undergone a resurgence. In March, bookstore board President Mary Maples Dunn, M.A. ’56, Ph.D. ’59, and the board launched a massive effort to regroup. For three weeks in April, they closed the store and started reorganizing book-by-book—painstakingly examining the estimated 20,000 books jumbled in boxes and stacked in precarious piles. They started what Dunn called a “deep culling,” removing books that had sat on shelves for at least three years.

Since then, sales and volunteer numbers have improved. Dunn, a former Bryn Mawr dean and Smith College president emeritus, and Vickers pledged to donate $20,000 this fiscal year to the College from bookstore revenue. By December, they had given half.

Of the seven or eight Bryn Mawr bookstores that once existed across New England and the mid-Atlantic, only two remain: the Cambridge store and The Lantern in Washington, D.C.

“These bookstores were, in their heyday, a significant contribution to making the college affordable,” Vickers says.

Volunteers describe the store, open three days a week, as quirky and charming. The red brick building with the corner entrance is a beloved neighborhood fixture located in the shopping district of Huron Village. The College’s owl mascot is painted on an outdoor sign, and a built-in cupboard filled with $1 books faces the sidewalk.

“It’s a place in which people who truly love books take great pleasure in browsing and seeing what they find,” Vickers says. “The neighbors love it.”

Libby Atkins ’46 helps customers at the front desk. She recently stepped down as president of the bookstore’s board after 25 years.

Libby Atkins ’46 helps customers at the front desk. She recently stepped down as president of the bookstore’s board after 25 years.

All of the books are donated, many by academics. Volunteers, mostly retired alumnae with a few non-alumnae, have been using their skills to reinvent the place. They’ve cleared out the basement; organized books for its online sales source,; found an organization to regularly collect excess books; and revamped both sales floors. Plus, there are plans to buy mobile bookshelves to make a welcoming space for author readings and community gatherings.

And while a sense of camaraderie, newfound energy, and fun has reinvigorated the group, it’s still uncertain whether the bookstore will survive, Vickers says. The board needs another few years of financial statements to make that decision. And it needs more volunteers, especially ones from younger generations to take over leadership. But when the financial picture started improving, volunteers started getting excited, says volunteer Barbara Schieffelin Powell ’62.

“It’s working,” Powell says. “There are some bumps, but it’s really working.”


34-35_AlumBriefs_Cambridge_Volunteer group shotVolunteers at a recent gathering, front row from left: Alexis Boylan ’94, Naushard Cader (a bookstore neighbor), Gail Rogers ’77. Second row from left: Mary Maples Dunn, M.A. ’56, Ph.D. ’59, Jessica Schoher. Back row from left: Cornelia Robart ’61, Nancy Haslett, Barbara Powell ’62, Carolyn Ferris Gombosi ’68, Anne (Roo) Dane ’61, Libby Atkins ’46, Micki McElya ’94.


Nancy Vickers helps group tackle epic poem

By Joanna Corman, ’95


Former College President Nancy Vickers (Photo: Peter Olson)

Former College President Nancy Vickers (Photo: Peter Olson)

Barbara Powell ’62 is tackling a book on her bucket list. With the guided expertise of a Dante scholar, Powell, along with about a dozen others, is reading Dante’s The Divine Comedy, an epic three-part poem written in 14th-century Italy about his journey through hell, purgatory and paradise.

Former Bryn Mawr College President Nancy Vickers launched the Dante study group in November. The group of both alumnae and non-alumnae meets monthly at Powell’s house in Cambridge, Massachusetts. For two hours, they nosh hors d’oeuvres, sip Italian wine, and discuss The Divine Comedy.

The group is taking about a year to examine “Inferno,” “Purgatorio” and “Paradiso” with Vickers’ expertise. She has been teaching and extensively publishing on Dante for four decades.

“It’s absolutely fascinating,” Powell says, “because we have some people who have read it before and are very knowledgeable, speak fluent Italian, and know all about medieval Italy and about the Holy Roman Empire and others who have never read it and are complete novices.”

Soon after Vickers retired, members of the Bryn Mawr Club of Boston asked her to give an introduction to Dante lecture. At the time, she was president of the Dante Society of America. She delivered the talk at the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow historical house in Cambridge, where the society was first formed in 1881.

Several club members asked her afterward to organize a Dante study group. Vickers supported the idea, but for the next three years spent most of her time working with the society, and she had to postpone it.

Fast forward to last spring, when Vickers and other volunteers were sorting through stacks of books at the Bryn Mawr Bookstore and revived the idea.

Because of the poem’s complexity, including its Biblical, historical, and literary subtexts, Powell recommends reading it for the first time with someone who has read it before.

“It’s not unreadable, but I think Barbara is right,” Vickers says. “On your first pass through it, it’s good to have a guide. But from there on, you can keep reading and rereading it and finding more and more pleasure in it once you’ve got the basic landscape under control.”

Vickers also recommends having the Italian version at the ready. The translation the group is using has side-by-side English and Italian texts so participants can hear the original poetry.

Says Powell, Vickers “often reads in Italian, which is beautiful.”