Scollay Square was gone before my time, so much—all—of the immediate setting of Firmin is a blank to me. Still, it seems fitting that the bookstore of Firmin is in Boston, for Boston is a great, great city for bookstores.
Maybe it’s just because I spend so many book-browsing years there, but I think there is more to it than that. Reading Firmin has made me think more about the experience of Boston bookstores, so, for Firmin week, I offer up this reminiscence.
I grew up in Seattle but Boston was my goal. My father is from Worcester and lived in Boston for some years. I was raised on a steady diet of Robert McCloskey books, instilling a loving familiarity with Boston and Maine. I lived in the Boston area for eight years (in a college dormitory from 1984-1988, and then again, in my first job out of grad school, 1994-98).
The landscape of bookstores is an ever-changing one. Even bookstores that remain in place change their character, get eaten by chains, and get enlivened or distracted by their espresso machines. Mine is a partial, prejudiced, and ill-remembered account. Given that the plot of Firmin revolves around “urban renewal” and the things—the bookstores—that are lost to gentrification, it is proving impossible for me to write this account without constant recourse to tics and checks noting where things have gone downhill, where things are not what they used to be. But I dislike that habit of nostalgia, so, even in this nostalgically-themed piece, I’m striving to avoid it. I began with the years of my residence as a kind of marker so that you can decide for yourself whether my years represent golden ones or years of pale, sorry book-shopping not like the golden years of Boston bookstores you remember.
What is so Boston about this experience? Certainly the bookstores of Chicago and Seattle are incredible and New York is full of gems. The difficulty of New York book shopping is the lack of a cluster of great stores. For a city with a (rapidly disappearing) flower district, a fashion district, a zone for Brazilian restaurants, areas where light bulbs and fixtures are abundant, it is a bit surprising that there is not a block that you can go to find an abundant collection of bookstores.
Harvard Square is a cluster of bookstores and, for all the changes, good and bad, over the years, including the loss of the still-lamented Tasty, a diner on the corner by the T (where you could get the best French fries ever for eating on the bus back to Wellesley), it seems like a huge outdoor playground dotted with places to buy books and read them. The Harvard Co-op never inspired. And even WordsWorths’s seemed too cramped to me. Still, the fiction and history sections there were amazing and I used to pop in when I would visit the editors at the (now defunct) Boston Book Review. Those offices, tumble-down and modern at the same time, a rented space crammed with desks and bookshelves, were the site of some of my most bookish delights: two or three times, I got to go in and browsing a shelf of review copies in person to see which one I wanted to write up next.
The children’s bookshop always brought on a wave of nostalgia. Not as good as the wonderful balcony children’s section in Seattle’s University Bookstore, it still strove to carry tons of great, great choices and I was always glad of a child’s birth to get to go in, buy a board book of Goodnight, Moon and pass the time among my first old book friends. Having the blessing of Margret Rey to use the Curious George name and drawings made it all the more fun.
There’s a travel bookshop in Harvard Square that always filled me with excitement and intimidation. I didn’t really need the topographical map of New Hampshire for, even if I were going hiking, I planned to stay on marked trails for a brief jaunt. I didn’t really want to go to Burma or even Dordogne. Browsing the Paris books made me feel a little unimaginative in such adventurous company. I felt the same way in the Foreign Language Bookstore. All I speak is French and French books are so relentlessly severe in their design. You cannot really judge French books by their cover and that, for me, is a source of disappointment.
Where there are many, many bookshops, you can afford the luxury of letting your taste become quite specific. When I lived in Lafayette, Indiana, I had to like the (wonderful but not to my taste) independent bookstore just off Purdue’s campus because that was the bookstore in town. But in Cambridge, I let my preferences grow arbitrarily. For example, I liked to walk past the Grolier and would occasionally pop in, but that shop, too was intimidating—so small and so filled by the charisma and vibe of the owner. Then, later, I became friends with the curator at the Lamont Poetry Room who was feuding with the Grolier’s owner. I felt I had to pick sides. And, even though some of the more tumble-down used bookstores had greater authenticity, I chose to spend my used bookstore time in McIntyre and Moore. This well-lit, organized, and enormous used bookstore on the fringes of Harvard Square seems to have been the place where professors would sell off portions of their libraries. You could find well-preserved scholarly books there, old and new, with great reliability. The staff was snobby beyond belief but they were also lazy. It didn’t take long to get the front desk out of ear and eyeshot and then you could browse unimpeded.
For all that was great at McIntyre and Moore, though, it was a little random used bookstore in Somerville where we found both volumes of Lawrence’s Phoenix in great condition. They weren’t cheap, but my boyfriend got them for me as a gift. I married him. Those random stores in Somerville and Arlington and outer-Cambridge were another wonderful feature of the Boston landscape: spot one on a weekend drive and chances were good that the books inside would be exciting and interesting. So many times since I’ve pulled over in another region only to find the used books to be so much junk: moldy and dull, bestsellers that don’t appeal to me, travel and self-help books too new to be curiosities, too old to be of use.
The weather, too, is essential to what makes Boston book shopping so magical. And here is where I think of Boston itself as much as Cambridge. Many, many cold dark nights I would pass an hour—between the movie and dinner, between dinner and home, between a bad date and a stack of papers to grade—warming myself in one of Boston’s bookstores. There used to be a great bookstore and café on Newbury street and, when it went, the Waterstone’s just off Newbury took its place: after browsing the windows of expensive boutiques and watching the Eurotrash smoke and lounge, ducking into a bookstore was the perfect tonic. I could remind myself of myself and of all the things I wanted to be, to read, to do and then, fortified, brace myself against the icy Boston wind.
In the end, for all the many pleasures of book shopping in Greater Boston, there was little to beat an orgy at the Harvard Book Store. I would get their frequent buyer card, fill it up, and get my benefit—a discount or a credit or whatever it was (it changed all the time) and then go on a little spree, spending a hundred dollars or more. The Harvard Book Store is still my favorite: it’s not too big, the staff picks are reliable, and it manages to be thoughtful and interesting without being snobby. So, you can find bestsellers and classics there and all the most thoughtful nonfiction. It is clean and organized like a big chain store but all the junk is edited out. When I go to Barnes and Noble or Borders (as I do—I am a promiscuous book buyer and, I must admit that most of my book dollars go to amazon.com), the new fiction table and shelf are always anticlimactic. At first, it’s so shiny and pretty, but then, of the fifteen books on display, only two or three appeal. The tables at the Harvard Book Store were just the opposite. Everything on display sounded good: exciting, worthy, or, at worst, of good quality but not for me. Even the remainders were appealing and judiciously chosen, so you’d look at them and feel sorry to live in a world where such books would only find homes at deep, deep discounts.
To go to the Harvard Book Store then, and go on a little spree and then take the bag to Café Pamplona, a dinky, stucco, underground café, with a charming, inattentive staff (which always, worryingly, seemed to include an overworked, stooped Spanish woman amongst a bunch of sullen teens) and sip a café con leche while reading the back covers of a bunch of books that are probably still unread—that still seems to me like the height of pleasure.