When you swing open the bright blue-painted door to Bryn Mawr Bookstore, you’re greeted by soft chimes and a plethora of books. Spines ranging from lightly stained to barely bent cover every inch of the walls; every turn reveals a new bookshelf. On the checkout counter sits a small gold handbell waiting to be rung by customers. The bookstore is home to thousands of used, rare, and out-of-print books, the purchases of which fund scholarships for its namesake, Bryn Mawr College.
The shop is run by student volunteers looking to fulfill the college’s community service requirement and retirees looking to occupy their free time. Some days, the workers are welcomed by nearly 10 boxes of donated books which each volunteer sorts, designating each book to its most appropriate section.
Along with processing donations and interacting with community members, the volunteers also work to cultivate the homey ambiance of the bookstore. Before the pandemic, they organized events such as Easter egg hunts and Halloween celebrations; certain volunteers are known for their exceptional efforts to welcome customers.
“We have some famous people,” says Ruth L. Mittell, a bookstore volunteer. “Sydney’s a particular volunteer that makes tea for customers. People know to come by when she’s on, and often she bakes cookies on Thursday afternoon[s].”
Before there was the bookstore, there was the book sale; students looked forward to the annual market of used books organized by long-time Harvard staffer Elizabeth E. Butterfield in 1957. Butterfield, an alum of Bryn Mawr College, accepted donations with her husband in a trunk on their porch. Donations often came from professors moving abroad, writers who had accumulated hundreds of books looking to clear out their shelves, or any local Cambridge resident. The books were sorted and priced on a ping-pong table in Butterfield’s basement. Butterfield’s daughter, Hester Butterfield ’65, remembers hundreds of books being dropped in the trunk. “They were sorted very methodically,” she says, recalling how her mother and father scrutinized each book before etching the price in pencil.
The location of the annual sale varied from year to year, often taking place in farms, churches, and, for a few years, in Sanders Theatre, says Butterfield’s son, Fox Butterfield ’61. In 1971, the Butterfields decided to establish a permanent storefront for the donated books at its current location in East Cambridge.
“A lot of the books sold those days for 10 cents or 25 cents. Maybe a really, really important book might go for $1,” Fox remembers. Even with those prices, the sale raised over $25,000 annually for Bryn Mawr students when the average annual cost of attending a four-year college was $2,725.
Aside from working to raise scholarships at the bookstore, Elizabeth also helped students through her work as the secretary to the dean of Radcliffe College. Later, she moved to the Registrar’s office at Harvard.
Besides her reputation for helping students navigate administrative webs, Elizabeth is remembered as a social activist. She was an organizer of Harvard’s Peace Action Strike coalition, a group founded in 1970 to protest the United States’s involvement in the Vietnam War. In further support of the cause, Elizabeth played a leading role in the closing of many Harvard offices in grievance of the students who lost their lives in the Kent State shootings.
In her activism, Elizabeth also foregrounded educational equality. Fox remembers delivering newspapers to people who did not have the money to pay him. Instead of withholding their delivery, Elizabeth would cover the cost of their subscription. “It was an important lesson for me,” Fox says.
Elizabeth passed on her commitment to higher education to Hester, who attended Radcliffe College. “Successful women come out of these scholarships,” Hester says of the Bryn Mawr Bookstore scholarships. “This is what my mother was building on. Women should get educated, be smart, and be independent.”
After learning that a new male co-worker, whom she had trained, was receiving a higher salary than her, Elizabeth resigned from the Registrar’s Office and worked instead as the secretary to the Social Studies Department, where she worked until her death in 1978.
Elizabeth’s legacy is still visible in the bookstore, where a section of books authored by “Notable American Women” brims with the works of famous feminist figures such as Emily Dickinson and Maya Angelou. A suffrage-era banner reads “VOTES FOR WOMEN” in a striking shade of red coupled next to a Bryn Mawr College flag.
“We want education to be available for women who might have trouble affording it, and we think that there is a reason for women’s colleges to still exist,” says Anne S. Dane, a volunteer of almost 40 years and a Bryn Mawr alum. Dane says she used to receive short profiles of the scholarship recipients which helped her connect with each woman’s story.
In celebration of the bookstore’s 50th birthday, volunteers took themselves back to the 1970s as they placed furniture on the street and filled the sidewalk with sounds of drums, horns, eating, and laughter. Dane says she can see the bookstore maintaining Elizabeth’s vision for decades to come.