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Haunting the Stacks: Best Used Bookstores

Local landmarks for shopping and browsing

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Browsing in a used bookstore is an altogether different experience from strolling the gleaming aisles of freshly minted volumes at a Barnes & Noble or a Borders bookstore.

Floorboards creak, a slight mustiness lingers in the air, and there’s no literary tchotchke at the registers. Among all the well-thumbed pages, shoppers can touch and smell and feel the ghosts of readers past, glimpsing snippets of personal history: photos forgotten between pages, margin notes, romantic inscriptions.

“The more worn a copy of On the Road, the quicker it seems to sell,” says David Fredette, manager of the Boston Book Annex, a used bookstore on Beacon Street.

But like many independent outfits, the secondhand bookshop is a struggling breed, victim of a declining print readership and the boom in online retail. Some make a go of it in cyberspace, but it’s not the same. The thrill is in wandering the stacks in a sort of trance, not knowing what spine-creased title, once-revered author, or long-forgotten cover art might pop out (and you gotta love all the single-digit prices).

Each shop conveys its own personality, a story in and of itself: some offer bare bulbs and milk crates for seating, others lamps and worn leather couches. Some have names inspired by deceased pets, others have cats roaming the wobbly stacks. All are separate dimensions, molded by the bibliophilic quirks of the owners and staff, where browsers can lose track of time, even of themselves, before stumbling back into the harsh light of modern life, clutching a few newfound companions or old acquaintances.

Boston Book Annex
906 Beacon St., Boston
617-266-1090
A fixture at 906 Beacon Street since 1980, the Boston Book Annex is a subterranean haunt brimming with more than 100,000 titles — and two cats, Wakefield and Guthrie. Books are stacked floor to ceiling, more packed into milk crates on the floor. From a 27-volume set of Washington Irving at the front counter to a collection of Charles Bukowski hidden on its side above the poetry books, BBA offers plenty of ways to spend some quality time. Pull up an empty crate and flip through the robust Shakespeare section. Classics and philosophy are also big sellers. Manager David Fredette describes the character of the shop as “kinda crusty.” Spend a little time in the Fine, Rare, and Unusual room, housing strange titles and back issues of Harper’s and the Atlantic Monthly, some dating to the late 1800s. (And if rare or “olde” prose gets your rocks off, BBA has a sister store in Jamaica Plain that specializes in hard-to-find editions and uncommon volumes.) The BBA has supplied the books for television and movie sets shot in and around the city, according to its Web site. So who knows what supporting role your recently purchased book has played? If you’re looking to sell some books, the shop offers store credit as well as cash.

Brookline Booksmith’s Used Book Cellar
279 Harvard St., Coolidge Corner, Brookline
617-566-6660
While the Brookline Booksmith has been around since the early ’60s, the Used Book Cellar downstairs is just five years old. Andrea Lee, a veteran of the venerable Brattle Book Shop, has been working the shelves and book-buying counter since opening day. She describes the place, which has about 25,000 titles of all genres, as low-key. “It’s very eclectic. Most of the things we have are one of a kind,” Lee says, noting that she has seen early Abbie Hoffman and signed Frank Herbert (Dune) books cross her counter. “And it’s a very comfortable place to come down to browse,” she says. “We see people in here for hours.” Buying hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday, for cash or credit.

Symposium Books
526 Commonwealth Ave., Kenmore Square, Boston
617-585-6559
Symposium Books, which opened last November, is not technically a used bookstore, but an independent bookseller infused with the same spirit. It carries remainders and overstocks from independent and academic publishers at 40 to 80 percent off the list price. With titles by Che Guevara and Hugo Chavez, you might mistake the shop for a left-wing reading room. But Symposium carries writings by radicals from around the spectrum, from Noam Chomsky to the world’s most wanted terrorist. “The collected works of Osama bin Laden flew off the shelves,” says clerk David Ladon. In fact, the range of subjects is broad, from arts, literature, and history to political science, sociology, and philosophy. While the store doesn’t specifically stock books according to BU syllabi, you never know: “If you find the book you’re looking for, you’ll save big,” Ladon says. Political events and readings are held regularly. The store’s Web site posts the latest arrivals, including discounted new titles, and offers a blog, book reviews, and an online inventory.

Commonwealth Books
134 Boylston St., Boston
617-338-6328
At Commonwealth Books, you might say that literature hates a void. The 45,000-title store feels like a slightly disheveled library, with books slid into nooks and crannies and stacked knee-high on the floor. Plenty of 18th- and 19th-century titles are in stock, and some go back a century or two further. But don’t be intimidated by leather-bound volumes behind glass and the store’s erudite feel (and the fact that the manager has a master’s degree in medieval economic history). Commonwealth also offers up plenty of art and architecture, as well as a healthy contemporary fiction section downstairs. The place draws mostly grad students and academics, but the drama section is well stocked for nearby Emerson College’s theater majors. Author portraits look down on inviting leather couches. Newspaper clippings and writers’ quotations are taped to walls and shelves. Commonwealth also sells botanical and ornithological prints, architectural drawings, and maps.

Across the River

Rodney’s Bookstore
698 Massachusetts Ave., Central Square, Cambridge
617-876-6467
This is the last Rodney’s standing. Brookline’s Coolidge Corner shop shut down last summer, and Hyannis is also a memory. But the eight-year-old Central Square shop is alive and well, with 100,000 titles spread over two clean, orderly, and well-lit floors. Its art, architecture, and photography sections are especially strong. Fiction is not too shabby, either. There are plenty of gems to be found at Rodney’s — from a copy of Sylvia Plath’s Aerial inscribed to late fashion designer and socialite D. D. Ryan to a first edition of Jack Kerouac’s Dharma Bums. Rodney’s also sells vintage posters, canvas bags, T-shirts, greeting cards, and pine bookshelves. An online inventory supplements the store stock, although the latter isn’t catalogued electronically. The shop buys books for store credit only, but call ahead to make sure a buyer is in. And don’t try the old “Rodney always gives me a deal” trick. Rodney is the owner’s beloved dog, now deceased.

Lorem Ipsum Books
157 Hampshire St., Inman Square, Cambridge
617-497-7669
Lorem Ipsum is one of the more unique and eclectic general used bookstores around the city. Opened in 2003, it started as a test case for inventory and pricing software developed for independent bookstores by an MIT graduate in an effort to keep neighborhood shops alive. It’s on the small side, with some 15,000 titles, but Lorem Ipsum’s quirky personality and a love of books are on full display: author birthday sales, Friday the 13th discounts (13 percent off), and the Used Book Club, which will mail a book a month based on the member’s personal preferences. And be sure to check out the Chicken Machine (a community art project) and the “museum” of ephemera found between the pages of used books bought from customers: forgotten concert tickets, IDs, coupons, letters, photos, postcards, even an ultrasound image, all of which paper the walls of the store’s bathroom. No appointment is required to sell books, but only store credit is offered. The Latin words of the store’s name, lorem ipsum, have no intended meaning. In publishing and graphic design, the words refer to filler text used as a placeholder, although some scholars claim it means “pain itself.”

Harvard Book Store
1256 Massachusetts Ave., Harvard Square, Cambridge
617-661-1515
The Harvard Book Store is a Harvard Square institution, and the same goes for its used bookstore downstairs. With 25,000 titles, the outfit offers classic and contemporary fiction, children’s books, history, art, architecture, religion, and science. Philosophy sells especially well, according to staff. Taped on the bookcases and walls are pulp covers and makeshift markers found in books bought from customers over the years: bookmarks, ticket stubs (including one from the 1948 Republican convention), hotel stationery on which someone wrote, “I cannot contain my loathing for Kant.” Sign up for the store’s used books e-mail newsletter to keep up on the latest arrivals. The store buys books Tuesday through Saturday, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., for cash or store credit.

Other used bookstores to check out

Brattle Book Shop
9 West St., Boston

McIntyre & Moore
1971 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge

The Raven
52B JFK St., Cambridge

Albatross Books (by appointment only)
617-739-2665

Starr Books (online only)

Avenue Victor Hugo (online only)

Spenser’s Mystery Bookshop (online only)

Caleb Daniloff can be reached at cdanilof@bu.edu. Robin Berghaus can be reached at berghaus@bu.edu. Edward A. Brown can be reached at ebrown@bu.edu.

 

12 Comments

12 Comments on Haunting the Stacks: Best Used Bookstores

  • Anonymous on 08.29.2008 at 11:16 am

    Good job on useful articles the last few days! I feel like I actually want to read them and check out the places mentioned!

  • Anonymous on 08.29.2008 at 11:36 am

    With titles by Che Guevara and Noam Chomsky, you might mistake the shop for a left-wing reading room. But Symposium also carries writings by radicals on the other end of the spectrum, from Hugo Chávez to the world’s most wanted terrorist.

    What a bizarre formulation – you equate Chomsky with Che Guevara? and Hugo Chavez w/ Osama Bin Laden?

  • Anonymous on 08.29.2008 at 11:52 am

    Another great shop

    The Book Rack in Arlington is an awesome little shop! It’s at 13 Medford St. in Arlington, right off of Mass Ave
    http://www.book-rack.com

  • Osvaldo on 08.29.2008 at 12:00 pm

    Book Sotres

    I just wanted to thank Caleb Daniloff for this article on Boston metro areas used book stores. I am a big proponent of independent bookstores and found a few stores in your article that I was not aware of. I am definitely checking them out in the near future.

  • Anonymous on 08.29.2008 at 12:32 pm

    This is the kind of low-key, local story that BU Today should be putting out, helping students with practical matters and helping them to connect to the local area.

    Thanks from a grad student & native “Cantabridgian”.

  • Anonymous on 08.31.2008 at 12:09 am

    it’s unfortunate lame duck books in harvard square did not make your list. hidden on arrow st, they are one of the most remarkable book stores in the country.

  • Anonymous on 09.01.2008 at 3:44 pm

    I gotta agree–it’s pretty bizarre that you put Chávez “on the other side of the spectrum” from Ché. We do our homework. Do yours.

  • cdanilof on 09.02.2008 at 8:15 am

    Point taken, guys, thanks for keeping my feet to the fire.

    Caleb D.

  • kcornuelle on 09.02.2008 at 9:09 am

    more

    New England Mobile Book Fair has very few used books but an enormous collection of remainders. You
    might want to add it to your Used Books article.

  • wanda friedlander on 12.20.2008 at 6:32 pm

    Thanks for the research and article. I just wanted to mention the Raven in Cambridge because i think it is the best used bookstore in the country. Specializing in scholarly book with a constant turn over, I always find great books. Also Lame Duck in Cambridge is excellent.

  • Anonymous on 01.20.2010 at 5:29 pm

    Buddenbrooks Books is a must for the serious collector. First editions, mint quality, etc. Martin is the owner and owend/ran what used to be the Booksmith on Bolyston for years.

    Online at:
    http://www.buddenbrooks.com/

  • numerology readings on 02.13.2011 at 4:15 am

    Thanks for posting this. I must check New England Mobile Book Fair.

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