Boston: it’s quite the quaint historical city––winding red brick paths and cobblestone streets, tarnished, coppery-brown bay windows, shady, grass-grown graveyards in the alleyways––but something which really gives it an academic charm are its bookstores. While Barnes & Noble has its perks of crisp new bestsellers and ordering a paperback on Amazon is rather convenient, nothing about the big chain-sellers can even remotely chalk up to the plainly lovable eccentricities and old-fashioned allure of an independent bookstore, especially in one of America’s oldest cities. As a reader (and certainly an impulse bookshopper), here are my top three picks.
1. Commonwealth Books
A dark little alcove of a place hidden in a brick alley, Commonwealth Books is situated off the main street, denoted only by a sign that points mysteriously in its direction. It beckons tourists and locals alike to step away from the hard, blaring racket of Downtown Crossing and instead wander into the sleepy, muted lull of its stacked shelves.
A doorbell fashionably chimes as one enters, and immediately the dry, deep, brown aromas of aged paper and wood varnish fill the space. Commonwealth carries hundreds of older titles as well as contemporary ones, and houses quite the assortment of subjects––indoor gardening, French Protestantism, early beat poet biographies, spiritual numerology, Freudian and Jungian psychology, historical memoirs, fusion-cooking––not to mention your standard fiction, non-fiction, and poetry sections as well. In sheeny plastic overwrap are assortments of canvas posters of vintage vases, street maps of Boston, and botany diagrams; vintage comic books for children sell for $5 at the register, Harvard collectible classics sets go for $200, I think a tabby cat might live there. There’s something for everyone.
The maze of shelves pulls you in. Running on a speaker somewhere is smooth saxophone jazz, an upholstered, victorian style chair sits lavishly in the corner window beneath a calico tapestry, warm yellow lamp light washes over the keeper’s desk; it is one of the coziest and most homely spaces I have ever set foot in, but perhaps what really lends it an especially unique touch are the old, peeling paper documents of authorial and cultural legends taped all over the shelves. As I browsed I was surprised to recognize the portraiture of Emily Dickinson, Octavia Butler, Ernest Hemingway, Rita Dove, Edna St. Vincent Millay, H.P. Lovecraft, and more staring back at me; quotes from C.S. Lewis, Cicero, Robert Frost, old 60’s press articles about renowned Bostonian confessional poets Plath and Sexton. Anyone who appreciates literature, especially the secondhand, vintage sort, will feel right at home in between those close, compact shelves. Although I had come in with no intention of buying anything but instead simply taking in the character of the space, I left with two titles on astronomy from the $1 rack and a copy of Billy Collins’ Aimless Love––it just happens. I know that I’ll be visiting Commonwealth again, eventually.
2. Brattle Bookshop
In the vein of charming, used bookstores, Brattle Book Shop is another must-see of Boston for the bibliophile passing through. In yet another brick alleyway flanked by bronze fire escapes sit carts upon carts of old titles. Instagramably picturesque, there are sometimes murals of famous authors on the left wall, bringing to the street a quaint, literary quality. The storefront window boasts some of its antique collectibles and titles; everything from space adventure comics to classics with embroidered covers. What you may find in the outdoor section is a wild card––I personally have thumbed through Civil War histories, guides on phrenology, cake cookbooks, self-help journals. On the sides of the alleyway stacked in boxes my roommates and I hit the jackpot on vintage magazines: Rolling Stone College Papers full of ads for Olympus film cameras and spiced rums, bold 80’s fonts, articles on Fleetwood Mac, Bob Dylan, The Stones. Inside the shop there are three stories of shelves from A-Z. In the poetry section I managed to get my hands on a 1977 edition of Stafford’s poetry collection, Stories That Could Be True, its purple cover torn just so slightly, a well-loved thing. The top floor is dedicated to rare books, so collectors and antiquarians can have their pick. They also have a children’s section with old prints of Robinson Crusoe, Aesop’s Fables, and more.
Near the register are boxes of old postcards––a real wallet trap! Some of them have strangers’ handwriting on them, love notes from people I’ll never know. There are vacation scenes, black and white photographs of squinting families, prints of art. Not only does Brattle accommodate the bookshelf, but also houses fairly cheap and very unique wall decoration––they also sell pins to go on your backpack or jacket. It’s a spectacular place.
3. Trident Booksellers
Among the bay-window shops of Newbury Street, Trident Booksellers offers newly-minted well-known titles and popular new releases. Inside, its book-themed staircase ascends to the next story of shelves, each step painted like the spines of bestsellers: Riordan’s The Lightning Thief, Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming, McCloskey’s Make Way For Ducklings, and so on. What makes Trident so wonderful is its match made in heaven—a café where you can purchase not only lattes and cappuccinos, jade and ginger teas, almond and avocado smoothies, but also entire cooked breakfasts, falafel wraps, tuna melts, hummus plates and arugula salads (and more!) Whether you’re simply looking for your next vacation read or looking for lunch, Trident will have you covered. Under quaint ceiling lamps there’s a café bar, in addition to an outdoor terrace where bookshoppers can sit down over brunch and channel their inner mysterious main character, or tune in to the going-ons of the main character of whatever book they just purchased. I’m particularly in love with their rotating Penguin Classics shelf, (I made it out of there without indulging in one, I’m rather proud of myself.) They also sell tote bags, so you can carry your books around with convenience. A bit pricier than Commonwealth and Brattle, but you get brand new books. A perfect place to spend an afternoon reading, studying, or hanging out with a friend.
If you ever have a spare hour or two and are looking for a new book to keep your shelf company, consider any of these wonderful places. You won’t regret it.