I’ve just moved from Boston to the Washington DC area, where I grew up. While there are many things that excite me about returning home, there are also lots of things I’m going to miss, and perhaps the biggest of these is the bookstores. Boston’s independent bookstore scene is beyond incredible—almost every suburb has a books mecca of its own. Being a good former English major, I managed to stop by almost all of them. Here are my thoughts on some of the best places in Massachusetts to get books if you’re looking to support small businesses.
(Credit for this idea goes to my Denver Publishing Institute friend Zoe, whose wisdom, warmth, and love for stories took us across New York City on my first-ever bookstour. She’s blogged about one of our favorites, Books of Wonder, here.)
Of the indie bookstores listed here, Trident Books is the only one located in the heart of the city itself, minutes from Berklee College of Music and Hynes Convention Center. As a result, the vibe of the place is unique among its fellows, with an attached full-size restaurant and trivia competitions every Friday night (along with an unusually snarky host, whose categories have included “Bugs” and “The Physics of Music”). There are plenty of backpack-toting hipsters among the shelves, but you can find just about any type of person there, which matches the impressive selection of book genres the place carries.
Depending on the time of day you go, you may encounter crowds, which always makes book browsing a bit difficult—the store is located on the famous Newbury Street, so it’s constantly frequented by tourists. However, its trendiness means it carries some fun gifts you can add to your purchase if you’re shopping for a birthday or holiday, including geeky-themed things reminiscent of Newbury Comics and a full selection of Kikkerland gag gifts (you can now fulfill your dream of owning a full set of dog butt magnets!)
If you’re looking to make a night out of your bookstore trip, there’s no better place than Trident. Just remember to grab one of their homemade ice cream sandwiches before you leave.
HARVARD BOOK STORE
The first thing you have to know about the Harvard Book Store is that it’s not the place where Harvard students go to get their textbooks. You’re thinking of the COOP, which is owned by Barnes & Noble and is basically a labyrinthic behemoth of tourism and assigned reading. Not so at the Harvard Book Store, which has been around since 1932 but feels like it could be much older. Within seconds of stepping inside, you’re overwhelmed by a lovely, dusty papery smell that hangs in the air in both of the large rooms on the top floor and in the used books section downstairs.
It’s tempting to think that the Harvard Book Store is a haven for only the most scholarly of readers, but this would be a grave mistake. While it does carry books for every possible field and enthusiasm, it also has quite the commercial side, with impressively stocked YA and children’s shelves, thoughtfully curated science fiction and crime sections, and even a Harry Potter midnight release for Cursed Child last month. It’s also one of those wonderful indie bookstores that tape handwritten notecards to bookshelves, letting browsers know what the staffers are reading and what books they like best.
Ultimately, though, I have a real soft spot in my heart for the Harvard Book Store because of the extraordinary authors they bring in for readings and tour stops. I had never imagined I’d get the chance to see Helen Oyeyemi, let alone in America, but somehow Harvard managed to bring her in on the week what is not yours is not yours was published, and I now have two (very much treasured) signed books. The authors that come to Harvard range from world-renowned to cult-followed to niche to just-published, and all of them are extraordinary. Definitely pick up one of their monthly newsletters and get ready to mark your calendar.
I’ve always thought of JP (or Jamaica Plain, for you non-Bostonites) as funky. There’s just something about the ambience of the place—the colorful houses, the variety of restaurants and shops, the beautiful arboretum—that makes me feel like I’m taking a break from Boston proper and plunging into a world where everything is just slightly askew. And Papercuts J.P., the newest bookstore on this list, is no exception.
What you should know for a trip to Papercuts is that it’s tiny—the store is essentially the size of a large college dorm room, with every spare inch crammed with books. But there’s a kind of mightiness that comes with its small size, as it’s clear every book on the shelves has been selected with care. The place has a cozy, neighborhood feeling, with warm and chatty staffers who are obviously passionate about what they do. The owner, Kate Layte, was on a Bookbuilders of Boston panel I had the good luck to see, and she’s one the coolest people in the industry I’ve met so far.
Papercuts isn’t the place to go if you’re looking for a very specific read, but if you would like to while away hours in a place where carefully-chosen books practically beg you to remove them from the shelves, this is the place to be.
This piece of literary heaven is on the same street as the Panera where my writing group met, so visits there quickly became part of my weekly routine. Perhaps more than any bookstore on this list, Brookline Booksmith really has something for everyone. This is helped by the fact that it’s quite large, with fully stocked upstairs and downstairs sections and a separate gift department towards the back of the top floor. The children’s section is truly impressive and even has its own Twitter account. And it’s enough of a neighborhood bookstore that the authors who visit seem visibly relaxed, ready for a bookish chat in their natural habitat.
Magic happens in this bookstore. For example, on one visit, I stumbled into a conversation between Holly Black and Sarah Rees Brennan, and ended up in the signing line with two new novels to read, two new critique partners, and a ton of fantastic writing advice. On other visits, I’ve found used out-of-print books for amazing prices, or books I’ve been hunting down for ages just sitting demurely on the shelves. They also have an excellent selection of calendars, planners, and obscenely beautiful journals for readers who are also writing-inclined.
Along with the obvious charm of this place, its location is a huge asset. At just a block from Coolidge Corner, it offers direct access to a variety of different coffee shops, all more than happy to let their patrons settle in with a good book. It’s also very close to WorkShop Brookline, a coworking space that occasionally offers write-ins. In the end, though, you don’t need an excuse to visit the Booksmith. The selection alone is enough to enchant any visitor for hours.
PORTER SQUARE BOOKS
I’ve saved the best for last.
Of everything I’ve experienced in the Boston area over the last year, Porter Square Books is the thing I will miss most. It’s possible I’m biased, as it was the closest to my Medford apartment, but there’s just something about a bookshop where the smell of ginger hits you right when you walk through the door, or where you’re constantly happening upon readings by up-and-coming authors, or where even their Twitter bio describes them as “fiercely independent.” Every bookseller I’ve spoken to has been warm and friendly and excited about the books I was reading, and the store also boasts a savings program, so you can rack up points for every new purchase you make.
One of the charms of this place is Café Zing, a tiny coffee shop that runs a narrow span from window to window at the front of the store. There’s nothing better than sitting at a table with a new book in hand or manuscript in progress, sipping one their house-made ginger lemonades. The atmosphere is fantastic, too—an enormous number of patrons are writers themselves, and I’ve had really wonderful conversations while browsing the fantasy section or buying a croissant. This does not preclude the booksellers, many of whom are published—YA author Mackenzi Lee and thriller writer Josh Cook are among those who staff the place.
Porter Square is, in its most basic sense, a community more than anything else. On any given visit, you’ll see everyone from toddlers to teenagers to old ladies having tea, but the thing that binds them together is an intense love for books and the people who shape them—and that, when it comes down to it, is all that is needed to make a bookstore perfect.