In Praise of Independent Bookstores

The news that Rodney’s Bookstore, a wonderful used bookshop in Central Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is about to close has made me think about the many independent booksellers I have patronized over the years. Most of these stores went out of business long ago. Their demise is sad, and yet I associate fond memories with each of them, memories that only partly include the books I bought. One of my favorites was Wordsworth, the first discount bookseller in Harvard Square. Wordsworth had one of the largest selections of books, especially literary novels, in the greater Boston area. Its two front tables always displayed at least one interesting title I hadn’t heard of before—no small accomplishment when a customer is a bibliophile who pays close attention to current releases.

But I will always remember Wordsworth most fondly as my favorite meeting place in Harvard Square. For many years, friends and I would meet at seven every Wednesday night before going out to dinner. The best part about congregating at a bookstore was that no one minded if someone in our group was late. The rest of us would just sit down on the carpet between the packed shelves and read while we waited. That week’s straggler would eventually show up, and, more often than not, he or she would sit down next to us and read for a few minutes before we all reluctantly got up, paid for our purchases, and went off to eat.

Another great bookstore was Avenue Victor Hugo, which was on Newbury Street in Boston for most of its thirty years. The mustiness of old books may not move some readers, but I was always comforted by the smell whenever I walked in the narrow front door. Curled up on the creaking steps by the entrance was a cat named Blue that stared at you as you came in. The shelves were taller by far than most people. And the stacks were always filled with the most wonderfully obscure titles, including hard-to-find first editions and printings from other countries. I discovered the other day that the business still exists online, and that the owners have no plans to reopen another store. A pity; online retailing has its advantages, but nothing quite replaces the charm of creaking boards, floor-to-ceiling shelves, and a cat that checks you out as you come in off the street.

There are many more stores that I miss: Barillari, Reading International, Paperback Booksmith, Cody’s in San Francisco, Olsson’s in DC. Some shops, however, are still around. Harvard Book Store remains one of the great places for browsing, especially in its huge basement of used and discontinued books. Brookline Booksmith is still in Coolidge Corner. Powell’s, Prairie Lights, Kramerbooks, Elliott Bay Book Company, Porter Square Books, Tattered Cover—they’re all still in business, and doing well, as far as I know. And then there are little gems, such as the Freeport Book Shoppe in southern Maine—small, unknown stores in which you never see more than ten customers at a time but that are filled with great old volumes and are run by stubborn book lovers who refuse to believe that the world no longer has room for used bookshops. There’s something to be said for aspects of the digital revolution, but thank goodness there are still people left who cherish the old-fashioned confines of an actual bookstore, in which you can talk with the owner, and turn real pages, and browse, and read.

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