From the Cloud to the Paige: Meet Harvard Book Store’s On-Demand Printer

Harvard Book StoreBen Paul, print-on-demand manager at the Harvard Book Store. Photo by Adrianne Mathiowetz.

Nestled in the back of Harvard Book Store, Paige M. Gutenborg whirs away. A faint smell of glue surrounds the machine as digital files transform into bound books.

It starts with a Xerox printer. The manuscript pops out and is whisked into a neat stack, and then comes the gluing and binding. Tiny balls of excess glue line the bottom of the transparent machine.

The pages, now bound, get trimmed to the appropriate size. And then, in a matter of minutes, out it comes: a book virtually indistinguishable from those that were shipped to the store.

Paige M. Gutenborg—Paige, for short—is one of 29 Espresso Book Machines in the country. While the independently owned Harvard Book Store already offers one of the best in-store book selections in the area, Paige lets the booksellers dream bigger.

“It’s a forward-thinking picture of the bookstore. With everything being digital, there’s an instinct to see it as competition to a brick-and-mortar bookstore,” says Ben Paul, the bookstore’s print-on-demand manager. “But in fact, it levels the playing field, because if everything’s on the cloud, we can get that. This gives us the chance to, if you’re looking for a book, just print it here.”

The ultimate goal is to offer customers any book in a matter of minutes, whether from the shelves or the machine. Currently Harvard Book Store has access to about 5,000 out-of-print titles from HarperCollins, plus any work in the public domain.

Harvard Book Store

Photo by Adrianne Mathiowetz.

But Paige also offers custom printing—and for Paul, that’s where the real fun comes in.

The celebrated, large-format photographer Elsa Dorfman, 80, has been going to the Harvard Book Store since she was in high school. In 1974, she published a visual diary made up of Polaroids and entries called “Elsa’s Housebook: A Woman’s Photojournal.” Few copies of it were left decades later when she found Paige.

“I was all excited when they got Paige. The minute I saw it, I thought, ‘Oh what can I do, what can I do with it? I’ve got to do something with it,’” Dorfman says.

She decided to do a new run of her book, and now she’s putting out an edition with additional content.

Harvard Book Store helps people get their books ready for Paige’s presses, since many self-publishers don’t have a background in graphic design or publishing. The staff offers advice on formatting and can connect authors with freelancers for more extensive help.

Dorfman’s book has been one of Paul’s favorite projects to work on, he says.

“It makes the technology bridge kind of cool, because she was Polaroid photographer, and there’s definitely a through line between her being fascinated by massive polaroid cameras and being fascinated by this machine,” Paul says.

The bookstore prints between 700 and 1,500 books a month, and about two-thirds are custom books, Paul says. Bound books are ready in as little as four minutes.

Many of the works are personal. One woman wrote journals for her children as they were growing up and printed copies to give them when they went to college. People print family memoirs and gifts for the holidays. There’s no minimum print size on Paige, so the machine is a good fit for these projects. But for writers who are trying to reach an audience, Harvard Book Store offers to sell any books printed on Paige.

Harvard Book Store’s gotten into self-publishing as well. Booksellers have printed public domain texts, including some of former President Barack Obama’s speeches and Lewis Carroll’s original “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” manuscript.

“It gives more physical dimension to books and how everything got here,” Paul says. “A lot of kids definitely find it interesting. I think you probably take it for granted when you see thousands of books surrounding you, so to see the process where it gets trimmed and comes out is kind of cool. It’s our version of the factory video.”

This story originally appeared in the November/December issue of Scout Cambridge, which is available for free at more than 200 locations throughout the city or by subscription.

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