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Haunting the Stacks: Best Used Bookstores

Idiosyncratic, musty, and worlds apart, the city’s literary oases

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Browsing in a used bookstore is an altogether different experience from strolling gleaming aisles of freshly minted volumes at Barnes & Noble or Borders. Floorboards creak, mustiness lingers, and there’s no shrink-wrapped literary tchotchke at the registers. Among well-thumbed pages, shoppers can touch and smell and feel the ghosts of readers past, glimpsing snippets of personal history in the form of forgotten photos tucked between pages, notes penned in margins, romantic inscriptions inscribed in jackets.

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

But secondhand bookshops are struggling, victims of declining print readership and the online retail boom. Some make a go of it in cyberspace, but missing is the chance encounter, the thrill of wandering stacks in a trance, not knowing what spine-creased title, once-revered author, or long-forgotten cover art might pop out.

Some shops 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 wobbly stacks. All are molded by the bibliophilic quirks of owners and staff, creating separate dimensions where browsers can lose track of time and themselves before stumbling back into the harsh light of modern life, clutching a few newfound companions or old acquaintances.

And with the new semester’s start, used bookstores can offer a practical service as well: the same novels and textbooks, full of the same insights, at a fraction of the cost.

Boston Book Annex
906 Beacon St., Boston
617-266-1090

At 906 Beacon St. since 1980, 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, with yet more jammed 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 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 shop’s character 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 you going, BBA has a sister store in Jamaica Plain that specializes in hard-to-find editions and uncommon volumes. BBA has supplied books for television and movie sets shot in and around the city, according to its Web site. So who knows what supporting role your recent purchase has played? If you’re looking to sell, 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 Brookline Booksmith has been around since the early ’60s, the Used Book Cellar downstairs is just six years old. Andrea Lee, a veteran of the venerable Brattle Book Shop, has been working the shelves and counter since opening day. She describes the place, which has about 25,000 titles, as low-key and “very eclectic. Most of the things we have are one of a kind.” Lee 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 opened two years ago, and is not technically a used bookstore, but an independent seller infused with the same spirit. It carries remainders and overstocks from independent and academic publishers at 40 to 80 percent off list. With titles by Che Guevara and Hugo Chavez, you might mistake the shop for a left-wing reading room; 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. But the range of subjects is broad, from arts, literature, and history to political science, sociology, and philosophy. While the store doesn’t 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 new arrivals, including discounted new titles, and offers a blog, book reviews, and an online inventory.

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 has shut down, and Hyannis is a memory. But the eight-year-old Central Square shop is alive and well, with 100,000 titles spread over two clean, orderly, well-lit floors. The art, architecture, and photography sections are especially strong; fiction’s not too shabby, either. There are plenty of gems to be found, from a copy of Sylvia Plath’s Ariel 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. The shop buys books for store credit only, but call ahead to make sure a buyer is in. And don’t offer the old “Rodney always gives me a deal” line — Rodney is the owner’s beloved dog, now deceased. Hours: Mon-Sat., 9:30 a.m. 9 p.m., Sunday noon-8 p.m.

Lorem Ipsum Books
157 Hampshire St., Inman Square, Cambridge
617-497-7669

Lorem Ipsum is one of the more eclectic 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. On the small side, with some 15,000 titles, Lorem Ipsum’s quirky personality and love of books are on full display, with 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. 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 papering the walls of the 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.” Open seven days, starting at noon.

Harvard Book Store
1256 Massachusetts Ave., Harvard Square, Cambridge
617-661-1515

This is a Harvard Square institution, and the same goes for its used bookstore downstairs. There are 25,000 titles of classic and contemporary fiction, children’s books, history, art, architecture, religion, and science. Philosophy sells especially well, according to staff. Taped on bookcases and walls are pulp covers and makeshift markers found in books bought from customers over the years, as well as ticket stubs (including one from the 1948 Republican convention) and hotel stationery on which someone wrote, “I cannot contain my loathing for Kant.” Sign up for the store’s 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.

Lame Duck Books
12 Arrow Street, Harvard Square, Cambridge
617-868-2022

Lame Duck is more specialty than secondhand store. It buys and sells “important modern books and manuscripts with an emphasis on rare literature and primary works in the history of ideas in English, German, French, Spanish, Russian, and other languages.” For bibliophiles and lit-lovers, this basement room just off Mass Ave is a museum, except everything’s for sale: letters from James Baldwin, an inscribed photograph of Russian master Fyodor Dostoyevsky, a first edition of Charlotte’s Web ($450), Lenny Bruce’s How to Talk Dirty and Influence People, and Horsemeat ($2,000) by Charles Bukowski, a signed oversized book of original photos of the author at the race track, with singular thoughts on his second-favorite pastime. Owner Peter Wronoski says he takes a pyramidal view of bookselling and wants to offer something for everyone, from the most refined, money-is-no-object tastes (some of Wronoski’s offerings are priced as high as $45,000) to the cash-strapped college student. Indeed, some books on his shelves are marked free — you just gotta look.

The Raven
52B JFK St., Harvard Square, Cambridge
617-441-6999

Like many used book haunts, this one is subterranean, but clean and well lit. An armchair invites lounging and the staff exudes a no-pressure vibe. Raven specializes in scholarly titles; robust categories include philosophy, art, architecture, history, political theory, anthropology, religion, literature, and poetry. Stock is refreshed every week, with at least 1,000 new titles, according to its Web site. The store buys books by appointment and usually pays 17 to 20 percent of the cover price. Raven gets nothing but love from bibliophiles on Yelp. Hours: Mon.-Sat., 10 a.m.-9 p.m., Sun. 11 a.m.-8 p.m.

McIntyre & Moore
1971 Massachusetts Ave., Porter Square, Cambridge
617-229-5641

The popular M&M moved to Porter Square from Davis Square, where it had been for 10 years. The store originally launched in Harvard Square. Manager Peter Coyle admits that its online business now competes with, and often surpasses, walk-in traffic. “Browsing a used bookstore is like moving to a new neighborhood and looking around,” he says. “These days, customers research their interests online and already know the title they want and that’s it.” M&M boasts 50,000 volumes in more than 200 subjects: ancient and medieval history, modern mathematics, classics, cultural studies, cookbooks, film, philosophy, fly fishing, poetry, fiction. And the higher the stack of books you bring to the register, the greater the discount — 10 percent off the first foot, 15 off two, and 20 percent off three. Open seven days a week.

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.

A version of this story was originally published in August 2008.

6 Comments

6 Comments on Haunting the Stacks: Best Used Bookstores

  • Curtis on 01.13.2010 at 1:51 pm

    You forgot Brattle and Commonwealth books both in Biston and among the best around!

  • Anonymous on 01.13.2010 at 4:25 pm

    Where’s Biston?

  • Anonymous on 01.13.2010 at 4:32 pm

    Also the Bryn Mawr Bookstore in Cambridge. Started by an alumna of the college in the 70’s, it’s a really neat spot!

  • Anonymous on 01.14.2010 at 11:33 am

    You also missed “Diskovery” at 469 Washington Street. She used to be in Allston, now she’s in Brighton. I don’t know how many books but I always find something interesting. She also has CD’s and LP’s. Just take the 57 bus towards Watertown and it’s on the right down the hill from Brighton Center.

  • Madhav on 06.18.2012 at 11:35 pm

    Do these stores buy used books as well?

  • Karen on 06.23.2012 at 12:25 pm

    AND Pazzo Books, Centre St, WRoxbury. Great place!

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