A Short Literary Trip in Boston

I was back briefly in my hometown of Boston a couple of weeks ago. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to call up any friends except for my 76-year-old second grade teacher. We had a small family reunion and celebrated my mother’s birthday together for the first time in maybe twenty years. Next time I hope to be in town longer to see more friends!

One thing I did manage to squeeze in, between all the “family bonding” that my mother wanted to do, were several trips to bookstores. All those years I had lived in Boston I took for granted a historical literary world that was my backyard.

My first stop was Brattle Bookshop in downtown Boston, across the street from Boston Common, the oldest public park in the United States and the camping ground for British soldiers in preparation for the American Revolutionary War. Brattle Bookshop has been around since 1825 and is one of the largest and oldest antiquarian bookshops in the country. My most memorable experience with the store was finding a copy of the biography Gable and Lombard during my Gone with the Wind obsession as a teen. Pre-internet, this was a huge feat, given that the book was out of print and I had to search two years for it.

I like the idea of their outdoor book racks, which you can see in the photo below. There are three floors of books inside the store including a floor of rare and antiquarian books. And outside they sell a diverse mix of bargain books, all priced from $1 to $5. There were a number of old editions (pre-1900 and turn of the century) as well. The only problem was that it was pretty cold that day – in the 30s/40s F - but fortunately I finished browsing as soon as I was coming near the end of my comfort zone standing in the cold for so long.

BrattleBS

Brattle Bookshop Mural

“20 Authors Upon the Wall Mural,” by local artist Jeffrey Hull

My next stop was Harvard Square. Whatever your feelings on Harvard the institution and the elitism it represents, you can’t deny the eclecticism and vibrancy of the town that was birthed by the country’s oldest university. I’d worked in the area a number of years and remember walking past the sets of The Firm (Tom Cruise movie, for those who weren’t around then) and With Honors (a forgettable Joe Pesci film) during lunch breaks. It was pretty neat, too, to see academic greats like Cornel West, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Howard Gardner in and around town.

And so that brings me to this gem of an indy bookstore, Harvard Book Store, which has been around for over 80 years. The store is open until 11 pm every day except Sunday (when it closes at 10), and every time I’m in there the place is bustling. They also have author events virtually every day of the week (and sometimes multiple times a day).

This is me, just window shopping this time.

This is me, just window shopping this time.

The Harvard Coop, founded by Harvard students in 1882,  was also fun and lively with its crowded café and four floors of books connected by a winding staircase.

I found a beautiful copy of Charlotte Bronte's Villette here, that I haven't been able to find anywhere else, including amazon.

I found a beautiful copy of Charlotte Bronte’s Villette here that I haven’t been able to find anywhere else, including amazon.

When I got tired of book browsing we took a break at Café Algiers on historical Brattle Street (the street where George Washington established his first headquarters during the Revolutionary War). Café Algiers is a tranquil, grand (in my eyes), and bookish Middle Eastern coffee shop and eatery and one of the few businesses in the Square that have remained over the decades.

cafeA

CafeAbookcase

The last time I was here was to meet an old classmate. He had kissed me at our reunion, igniting all kinds of dreamy hopes in me. After avoiding me for a couple of weeks, he offered to meet at the café, where he told me painfully and uncomfortably that he was still in a relationship. The tea tasted bitter that day, but this time I was with my husband, son, and brother, and I enjoyed the best (the only) mint chocolate coffee I’ve ever had.

coffee

And then there were these shelves, the ones I spend the most time looking at whenever I am home.

Bookshelfhome

This was my bookshelf growing up, pretty much unchanged since I left home for college a whole lifetime ago. The stuffed animals are still on the very top shelf, now protected and wrapped in plastic thanks to my mom. My photos are still there, as are my trinkets from different trips, events, and friendships, costume jewelry, extra buttons that came with clothes I’ve long stopped wearing, and, of course, books. The shelves are a bit messy now as I’ve been raiding them over the years, either selling/donating or taking some books back with me. Since I left home I’ve lived in nine apartments/houses in five cities on two continents. The more my life has evolved the more meaning this bookcase holds for me, as an anchor in time, a tether to the self and life that exist now only in memories.

 

Have you been to Boston? What are your favorite literary cities? What are your favorite literary places where you live?

24 comments on “A Short Literary Trip in Boston

  1. Emily J. says:

    I love the pictures of books, books, and more books! I visited Boston in 2008, and found a lovely bookstore across from Faneuil Hall. They had an old and beautiful copy of Josephine Johnson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Now in November. I was planning a master’s thesis on her, but I ultimately decided not to. Besides, I didn’t even buy the copy because it was so expensive!

    • Cecilia says:

      Ah, I don’t know that bookstore! I didn’t make it to Faneuil Hall this time around but would love to check out the store next time. Glad that you had a chance to visit Boston!

  2. whatmeread says:

    This sounds like a great visit! I was only in Boston one time and unfortunately didn’t find any of those places, but I was there wandering around by myself for a day.

  3. Boston is one of the cities at the top of my list of places I want to visit in the U.S. I will definitely bookmark your post so I can look for these great places … whenever I get there. :)

  4. Ariel Price says:

    I sooo want to go to Boston! My hubby and I are trying to figure out when we could go. It seems like the perfect combination of sports for him and books for me. :)

    • Cecilia says:

      Late spring, summer (maybe early summer) and early fall are nice times! Otherwise the weather can get so awful (snowstorms in April, etc.) Yes – it’s a GREAT sports and literary town! I hope you and your husband can make it someday soon!

  5. Naomi says:

    I was in Boston once, many years ago on a band exchange trip in High School. The exchange trip was actually in New Hampshire, but we spent one afternoon in Boston. It was over 20 years ago now, but I think we went to a big outdoor market. I remember buying a bracelet with turtles on it. And, to get there, and back, we took the long ferry ride from Yarmouth, Nova Scotia to Maine. Boston is not even really very far from us, but we haven’t been out of the country in ages. Someday we will, though, and I will take everyone to the book stores.

    In my town, we have one used book store where I often go. I dream of taking it over and fixing it up (don’t we all?). But, when we go into Halifax, there are several good book stores. Woozles is a well-known children’s bookstore, and it is wonderful. I still like the used ones best. To me, they are just so much more interesting, and browsing in used book stores is like a treasure hunt- you never know what you’ll find.

    I love the picture of your own bookshelf. It must feel nice to know that your little shelf of memories sits there waiting for you every time you go home. :)

    • Cecilia says:

      You always write the most thoughtful comments, Naomi. Thanks! I agree that the used book stores are so much fun, and I’m glad you have one near you. We’d love to go to Canada one of these days too. My husband studied there on a short exchange program a long time ago and I escorted some students to Niagra Falls once but didn’t stay long. It’s interesting how we can be so close to another country but not visit often!

      I do love my old bookshelf as everything else in my room has changed! Everything but my bookshelf :-) Anyway, you were the one who inspired me to think about my old shelves and to photograph it, when you wrote the post about your mother’s bookcases!

      • Naomi says:

        It’s so true! The border is really not far away, but thinking about having to get 5 passports causes us to keep putting it off. We do love our favourite spots around here, too, though.

        I’m glad the timing of my bookshelf post was just right.:)

  6. rudrip says:

    Wow, Cecilia. What a lovely weekend. I visited Boston many years ago, but mainly did the touristy route when I was there. I’d love to revisit and do a bookstore vacation. Sounds like a perfect way to unwind.

    • Cecilia says:

      Bookstore vacations are my latest thing, though we don’t always visit very literary places (like Myrtle Beach). But Boston is so perfect for that. I hope you get a chance to visit Boston again!

  7. Denise says:

    What great memories!

  8. What a lovely post! I especially enjoyed hearing about your old bookshelf. My parents are moving into a new house soon, so unfortunately my high school bookshelf’s demise is imminent. But that’s ok—the best books have a permanent place in my memory.

    I love the photos of the bookstores, too. I’ve never been to Boston, but I’ve always wanted to. Perhaps someday soon!

    • Cecilia says:

      Thanks, Alina! I’m glad that your parents’ move won’t traumatize you any ;-) At some point my parents will move, probably to be closer to us. I will have to say good bye to my shelf at some point…I hope you get a chance to visit Boston someday soon too! Fortunately you are not too far away.

  9. ayala says:

    I love Boston and I love that you went to all these charming places. I love bookstores as well !

    • Cecilia says:

      Hi Ayala, I know that Boston holds a special place in your heart. :-) After being away for so long, I’m beginning to look at the city again with new and more appreciative eyes.

  10. I love exploring books and art on my travels – Portland, OR has Powell’s (HUGE, MASSIVE Book Store) and love all mediums of art, inside or outside:) Thanks so much for sharing – want to see more of the East Coast – been as far as D.C. Happy Reading – Happy Day!

    • Cecilia says:

      I have heard so many good things about Powell’s – it is almost legendary! I would love to visit it someday :-) Hope you can make it back to the east coast someday. The history makes it a lot of fun and unique!

  11. Ngan R. says:

    I lived in Boston for a year when I was studying for my Masters in Tax Law, during which time I lived and breathed books—law books that is! I did visit the Harvard Book Store and Coop and the university bookstore, but don’t recall visiting any others. I love the look of Brattle with all those books in the alleyway. I always think of New York when someone mentions “literary city.” I always end up walking into random bookstores in that city when I visit. Also, in San Francisco, there is no end to book readings, and some of my favorite Bay Area book stores are Green Apple Books (great selection of used books!), Bird & Beckett, and Books, Inc. (even though they are a chain, they are very knowledgeable and well-stocked).

  12. orangekiwi1 says:

    Thanks for enlightening me. I have never been to Boston but now I really want to visit!

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