Wednesday, September 7, 2016

For the Bookworms in Boston

In this age of tablets and smart phones and every other manner of portable screen that you can carry with you anywhere, the printed word seems to be losing the war.  Newspapers and magazines are struggling to morph into something that aligns with this digital world, and those brick-and-mortar bookstore classics like Barnes and Noble and Books-A-Million have been forced to shutter many (or all) of their stores and expand their wares far outside the realm of "book."  And then there's Amazon, who was originally born straddling the line between digital and physical as the biggest retailer of printed books that existed purely in the digital world.

Maybe in 50 years kids won't understand colloquialisms referencing turning pages and the like because Kindle will rule the world.  Maybe people will have forgotten that musty smell of undiscovered stories and waiting adventures that wafts through the stacks of shelves in old libraries and second-hand bookstores.  Maybe "browsing" will no longer signify hours wiled away reading back page summaries and will instead refer only to scrolling through lists of titles on a search engine.


In the meantime, there's still a place in this world for tactile book lovers like me.  No town is complete without at least one store, tucked down an alley or on a side corner, that harbors that musty smell of potential among is stacks and shelves of scuffled, finger-printed, dog-eared beloved books.  Sometimes there's a cat or a dog.  Usually contemporary titles give splashes of shiny color to shelves laden with externally dull, cloth-bound hardcovers that you've never heard of before.  Always you are welcome to take your time, and proprietors will not be surprised to round a corner and find you seated on the floor between stacks reading a tantalizing first chapter to help you narrow down your final selection for purchase.

My beloved Boston has three bookstores that are my particular favorites, and one book table.

You read that correctly: a book table.  I'll start there.  (And yes, technically it's in Cambridge, not Boston.)  Just up the street from the brick building that houses the administration of the Harvard Extension School, on the corner of Brattle Street and Farwell Place, sits a table.  It's a regular table, perhaps a shade longer than the typical picnic table, and without the attached wooden benches.  And it's always covered in books.  Such close proximity to Harvard University guarantees a very interesting and ever-changing selection.  You'll find textbooks, non-fiction research on all manner of topics, and serious works of fiction.  The book table does not have a vendor, and it's on the honor system to deposit the appropriate amount of money in a container on the table.  In fact, I just learned that you can find the book table on Google Maps, and that's exactly how it's labelled -- "Honor System Books."

Number three of my favorite Boston bookstores is a local Massachusetts chain called Raven Used Books.  While I lived in Boston, their local flagship was an awesome below-street-level location near Harvard Square, and they opened a second store on Newbury Street.  However, the Harvard Square store was recently relocated to 23 Church Street and they had to close the Newbury Street store because of insane rent prices.  No surprise there!  Location roulette aside, Raven is a wonderful store with thousands of fascinating books.  They specialize is "scholarly and literary titles" and have a huge turnover from the local academic and literary communities, which means there's always something different to find on the shelves.

My second favorite Boston store is Brattle Book Shop, located downtown at 9 West Street (not on Brattle Street....) one block away from Boston Common.  When the weather is decent, this store expands outside beyond its three-story building into the empty lot next door, where rolling shelves are lined up for browsing as well.  The side lot is decorated with colorful murals depicting famous personalities from the literary world.

Inside, you'll find wooden shelves lined with books organized by topic.  Sometimes there's a Bernese Mountain Dog assisting behind the register.  Brattle Books has a collection of rare and first-edition books in addition to the regular jumble of academic and literary titles.  And most interesting of all, they offer a rental service to assist with decorating using books!  Whether a realtor needs to decorate the library in a show home with serious-looking leather-bound books, or a movie director needs to make a film set look like a college dorm room or a professor's office or just a cozy living room, Brattle can provide the goods to complete the look.  What an interesting sidebar to include in a regular bookstore business!

Last, but absolutely not least because it's my favorite, is Commonwealth Books.  This place is so old school that they do not have a digital inventory, and if you sell books to them for credit, the total amount of money you've earned is recorded on a notecard kept in a filing system.  They're hidden away on Spring Lane, a tiny alley smack in the middle of the downtown chaos between Faneuil Hall and Downtown Crossing and right on the Freedom Trail.

Like Brattle Books, Commonwealth carries antiques, first-editions, and rare books too.  They've got maps and engravings to complement their huge selection of tens of thousands of titles.  The store is organized by subject, and the shelves create a maze of nooks and crannies with the occasional stuffy chair and fireplace that cater to the serious browser.  There's even a large fluffy orange cat that may prowl the floor investigating patrons, but is more likely to be found curled up asleep behind the main window.

When you need a break from your cannoli eating, beer drinking, and history sightseeing, these bookstores are little oases of serenity in the madness of the busy city.  Long live the printed page.


  1. Such a lovely post! Boston has so many hidden treasures! I totally agree, nothing will ever beat reading a book- musty smell and all!

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