April 18, 2014 | Review Period
Field Trip: Schoenhof’s Foreign Books
In which I visit a language-learning giant in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
When I was a college student in the mid-1980s, I bought many of my coursebooks smack-dab in the middle of Harvard Square at the Harvard Coop, which was pronounced like the second half of “chicken coop” even though the word stood for “cooperative.” Foreign-language materials, however, required a special trip to Schoenhof’s, a few blocks away in Cambridge on Mount Auburn Street.
My Freshman Dorm, Where I Used to Do My Language Homework
Boylston Hall: Where Harvard’s German Department Used to Live
I didn’t know it at the time, but this was a pretty unusual business in the United States. There is currently no bookstore like Schoenhof’s in New York. Nothing even close. I’m not aware of a store like Schoenhof’s in all of the United States, in fact. (If you know of one, by all means let me know.)
Stairway to Heaven, Which Resides in the Basement
At Schoenhof’s there resided multiple languages’ worth of books. My usual destination, however, was the rows and rows of tiny, identical-looking yellow German books published by the publisher Reclam Verlag. Small books, big knowledge. Over my four years of college I bought quite a few French titles there as well. Maybe Spanish, too, but I can’t remember.
Upon entering the front door of Schoenhof’s, you promptly descended a staircase, only to find yourself in…heaven. The one thing that was mildly unpleasant about going there was that it made me realize how much information was on the shelves and how little in my head.
Last month when I was teaching in Boston, I took a side trip to Cambridge to visit Schoenhof’s—for the first time since 1987. The building that housed it was presumably the same, though I really wouldn’t know. They could have knocked down the original building, replaced it with a building quadruple the height and in a totally different style, slapped a Schoenhof’s sign on it, and I would not have been able to tell the difference. Grammar I usually notice. Buildings I usually don’t.
Little Princes from Around the World
Where the Kids Can Read, Multilingually
I opened the door and headed down the stairs, as I had done many times before, and when I reached the lower level, the first thing that caught my eye was the assortment of translations of Antoine Saint-Exupéry’s Le petit prince on the wall (see photo above left). The book has been translated into hundreds of languages and is a huge favorite of linguaphiles. Collectors abound.
Right by the various little princes was a truly substantial kids’ section with tables, chairs, and hundreds of books in all kinds of languages. I even saw the Teletubbies in Arabic!
At first glance, the store was mostly as I remembered it. Not that many things are mostly as I remember them, so the constancy impressed.
Books, Libros, Bücher, βιβλία, книги, Etcetera
German Reclams! (That’s What We Called Them!)
The store is not enormous, but grownups will find that books cover a lot of surface area, on shelves, tables, and floors. Floor books tend to be for students of the numerous local colleges and universities who buy their language course materials here. (Probably it is easier for them to bend over than it is for some other customers.)
Schoenhof’s dedicates major swathes of the store to the major European languages, but they also have substantial sections for other languages that you would have a very hard time finding in U.S. bookstores, unless they are stores devoted to a single specialty language.
Books in Portuguese
Mongolic, Oceanic, and Turkic Languages!
The bulk of the store is devoted to books in foreign languages, which is a great gift in a country where only 3 percent of published works are translations, but there is also much material about foreign languages.
The whole back section of the store, in fact, is dedicated to language-learning and reference materials. These days that is the part that gets me most hopped up—more than the actual novels, plays, poems, and so on.
I am slightly embarrassed to admit that. But only very slightly. Like Popeye, I yam what I yam.
Anyway, the range of teach-yourself materials at Schoenhof’s is absolutely astonishing. I saw languages I had never heard of. I saw languages I had barely heard of. And there were also language materials based in languages that were not English. So you could learn Latin in German. Or Korean in French. And so on.
Schoenhof’s Has a LOT of Assimil
A Visual Dictionary in Five Languages!
Creek, Comanche, and Eskimo!
Irish Learning Materials
For the Serious Student of Basque
I hung out there in the language-learning area till closing time, talking to a linguaphilic employee named Dean Hunt. He knows eight languages and can speak fluently about all kinds of language materials and publishers and methods.
Now this is a man who loves his job.
There are not that many people with whom I can discuss Routledge and Hippocrene, Teach Yourself and Assimil, who will know exactly what I am talking about and in minute detail. Naturally I stayed chatting until I closed down the joint.
A place like this is almost too much for me. For someone with my tendencies, it can be hard to maintain composure. What appetites are stirred!