Browsing for bargains in Boston's bookstores

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Boston's reputation as an intellectual center had early beginnings, and its bibliophiles have long supported the city's numerous and diverse lot of booksellers.

The Old Corner Bookstore (School and Washington Streets) is now a small museum, but bookselling on that corner began in 1829 with the Carter & Hendee bookstore. Later owners William D. Ticknor and James T. Fields published the works of Hawthorne, Emerson, Thoreau, Longfellow, Stowe, and others, establishing the first body of American literature. First editions of some of those famous volumes remain on display here.

While the O.C.B. is no longer in the bookselling business, there are plenty of bookstores nestled in most of the historic areas of Boston and Cambridge which are worth going out of your way for. Because of their volume, prices, special subjects, or (best reason of all) their charm, these are some of the best:

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Goodspeed's (18 Beacon), established in 1898, is the closest heir to the O.C.B. and, by now, the oldest continuous bookstore in Boston. The Beacon Street store specializes in rare books, prints, and autographs and anyone who might be intrigued by Grover Cleveland's signature, Audubon prints, or 18 th-century maps of Boston will enjoy browsing. The other location (2 Milk Street) stocks a good selection of used hardbacks. The shelves are neatly organized and the atmosphere, befitting tradition, is reverentially quiet. "Anything that's a book" is their motto and that covers the spectrum from rare books to the volumes selling for 25 and 50 cents apiece.

A Curious Bookshop (51 Bromfield) is a general used bookstore (they say "out-of-print books") that carries mostly hardbacks. Narrow aisles, a steep stairway, books towering overhead and a comfortable mixture of chaos and order give this place its charm. Some rare and first editions are sold here and the sections of poetry, literature, Boston-New England, and travel books are especially good. Upstairs there are floor-to-ceiling books, folding chair, and classical music on the radio.

The Brattle Book Shop (25 West Street) was a Boston institution until a fire destroyed the shop and some 400,000 volumes in early February. Now it's reopened a few doors down with a stock of 15,000 used books still being labeled and shelved. It's worth a visit just to talk to owner George Gloss or take advantage of used paperbacks 3 for $1.

Starr Book Company (37 Kingston) is at the edge of Boston's Chinatown. Its one floor has 15- foot-high ceilings, about 100,000 used books and just enough room for a few customers. The books are shelved high, but the're organized and the labyrinth of side aisles make it a good place to lose yourself in thought. Specialties are American and English literature, with some interesting children's books as well.

Beacon Hill's Victorian architecture, gas streetlamps, and 19th-century ambiance gives it a charm that carries over to its sub-sidewalk bookshops. The Book Exchange (85 Charles) is like being in someone's cozy low-ceilinged book-jammed dormitory room. The small shop carries recent titles and used paperbacks, and gives credit in exchange for used paperbacks and some hard covers. The Book Store Inc. (76 Chestnut) is a little more elegant but no less cozy. The shop carries new books, with the performing arts and children's books well represented. A special attraction is that the shop requires only the cost of postage as a deposit for special orders.

Avenue Victor Hugo (339 Newburry Street) is the closest thing to San Francisco (and City Lights bookstore) that I've seen in Boston, but with an identity all its own. The collection of new and used books is eclectic (comic books are stacked a few feet from volumes of Montaigne) and makes for prime browsing. The specialty is science-fiction (the store publishes three science-fiction magazines) and there is a good selection of magazines and small press publications. The store is worth going to for its art postcards alone, or for the poetry readings on Sunday evenings. One of the best in the city.

James Russell Lowell, the 19th-century poet and Harvard literature professor, once listed the world's most important cities, in ascending order, as "Rome, Venice, Cambridge!" James Bartlett's University Bookstore no longer provides a locus for spirited debate, but today's Harvard Square is still an intellectual scene, with no shortage of heavy conversation, or of bookstores.

Harvard Book Store (1256 Massachusetts Avenue) carries new paperbacks, but a few doors down (1248 Massachusetts Avenue) the other store has the best selection of publisher's remainders in the area, many selling for $1.98. The store has a number of art books as well as magazines and used paperbacks for half the cover price.

Grolier Book Shop (6 Plympton) specializes in poetry, and it's worth dropping in just to see that there is enough verse being published to fill the shelves in this small high-ceilinged room. The Grolier has been a crossroads for the area's poets since 1927, and many of the writers' pictures hang on the wall. The collection is extensive, and they'll order anything for you that they don't have. There always seem to be avid poetry lovers scanning the shelves, and it's my favorite place for discovering the new and unusual.

If you can't find it anywhere else, try the Harvard Coop Society (1400 Massachusetts Avenue). With three floors of books and 50 to 60,000 titles, this is the largest volume bookstore in the area. Around the corner, Words Worth (30 Brattle) has two floors, mostly paperbacks, and a flat discount of 10 percent off paperbacks and 15 percent off hardcovers.

Book Case (42 Church) has the largest selection of used books in Cambridge, shelved and well-organized in the store's basement. Mandrake Book Store (8 Story) is particularly good with art and architecture books. There are selected new titles and good sections of poetry, philosophy, literary criticism and reference books. Small labels tell you "New Acquisitions on Upper Shelves" and part of the fun here is looking on the lower shelves, where you may find previous editions of a book at pre-inflation prices.

Temple Bar Bookshop (9 Boylston Street) is a small store whose strongest areas are photography and poetry. The store also sells photography and some rare and fine editions.

Pangloss Bookshop (1284 Massachusetts Avenue) carries used hardbacks, textbooks, and scholarly books in the social sciences (no fiction). This erudite one-room shop has about 40,000 books on its shelves. Schoenhof's Foreign Books (1280 Massachusetts Avenue) says it all in the name: foreign books -- and a good selection of prints, especially botanical and zoological illustrations.

A short distance outside the square, Movie Madness (1642 Massachusetts Avenue) carries books on every aspect of film: actors, directors, criticism, and history, as well as movie posters and stills.

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