Boston’s Old Corner Bookstore, once a meeting ground for the literary likes of Charles Dickens, Ralph Waldo Emmerson, and Nathaniel Hawthorne (and many, many more), is now a Chipotle fast food restaurant.
After Amazon sold its first book online in 1994, brick and mortar bookstores dropped like fingers across a keyboard, leaving Barnes and Noble as the only national bookstore standing today. While the Old Corner Bookstore now charges extra for guacamole and the likes of Borders have gone the way of the yard sale, Boston has maintained a strong contingency of independent bookstores that have survived the onslaught of the internet; here are five of the best.
Nestled in the cozy Brookline neighborhood of Coolidge Corner is one of the strongest independent bookstores to be found today: Brookline Booksmith. Upon opening in 1961, Booksmith dedicated itself to “the fine art of browsing,” organizing their collection by genre (the standard then was organization by publisher), and selling literature in affordable paperback (typically reserved for the likes of “low brow” pulp detective and western stories). The effects of these early innovations reverberate today: the first floor remains cleanly packed with rows of new books ranging from contemporary to classics, coherently organized across all imaginable subjects. The basement floor houses an equally robust selection of used books across a multitude of genres. At Brookline Booksmith, the fine art of browsing flourishes today.
Brattle Book Shop
On a side street between The Common and Downtown Crossing is one of Boston’s most revered literary institutions: Brattle Book Shop. Dating back to 1825, Brattle has established itself as a national landmark in the rare and antiquarian book-selling world. The first two floors are dedicated to used books – name a subject and they’ll have a section dedicated to it – while the third floor houses their rare and antiquarian section, a literary museum in its own right. The lot next to the building is lined with fully stocked shelves, and when weather permits more racks are rolled out, turning the brick-lined pavement into an open-air bookstore. Brattle’s collection is not only huge but also very well organized; you’d be hard pressed to not find the book you’re looking for.
Hidden down a Downtown Crossing alleyway is a pair of storefront windows draped with a black awning. The awning reads “Commonwealth Books & Old Prints,” and the view through the window reveals a cluttered closet full of old books. Open the door though, take a step in, and it quickly becomes apparent that Commonwealth Books is much more than a walk-in closet. Dealing in used books, Commonwealth is quiet, comfortable and covers all subjects. In addition to their book section, Commonwealth has one of Boston’s best collections of antique maps and prints for sale.
Harvard Book Store
Not to be mistaken with The Coop, Harvard University’s Barnes and Noble managed bookstore, The Harvard Book Store has been an independently run shop since its opening in 1932. Housed in a corner building behind a Harvard Square neoclassical façade, browsers will find an equally strong collection of both new and used books. In addition to their phenomenal selection, Harvard Book Store hosts almost daily readings and lectures from authors which, this being Harvard Square, are unfailingly widely attended. The likes of John Updike, Al Gore and Stephen King have been found browsing the shelves of this Cambridge institution.
Trident Booksellers and Café
Some bookstores are havens for aimless browsing, others standout for their particular selections, while the next might distinguish itself for its lectures and events; at Trident Booksellers and Café you’ll find the best place in the city to find the book you’ve been looking for, and sit down to read it over a meal. Half bookstore and half casual restaurant, Trident is a welcome break from the retail bustle of Newbury Street and one of Boston’s most unique bookstores.