Five Bookstores not quite in Boston

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Every summer when I was a kid, we drove north to our semi-ancestral homeland of Cape Breton and south to our even less ancestral homeland of Daytona Beach. Having grown up in a state where you can drive from the south eastern tip to the north western tip in about four hours, it’s torture to drive through states outside of New England.

Fortunately, I live in Boston. I have relatively easy access (on public transit, no less) to most of my beautiful, delightful and kind of snobby state. These stores are not terribly far from the city, and definitely worth a visit.

1. Brookline Booksmith:  Brookline is surrounded by Boston on three sides, so this barely counts, but count it does. Hop on the C line to Coolidge Corner, get off the train and walk straight down the street, it’ll be on your left. The Booksmith has events with authors all time, a used book cellar downstairs, and a lovely collection of sketchbooks and kitsch for those of you who like such things (raises hand). They also sell, for no discernible reason, really good cookies. Favorite finds here have included reduced price classics, books from the $0.50 rack, and a fantastic collection of book-themed postcards I give out instead of regular cards with presents.

2. Porter Square Books: I have a meeting in this area every other week, so this a regular spot for me. This unobtrusive corner of Cambridge may not look like much, but they’re incredibly active.  In addition to the many author events they host, there’s a knitting/book club, a beautiful children’s corner with story time, and gorgeous displays in the front entrance. They have theme tables, best seller tables, literary challenges, etc. This is the perfect place to come to do quiet work- Cafe Zing at the front is sunny and friendly, and has a very decent vegan selection (pastries AND sandwiches!). They often have specials on drinks. I spotted Amanda Palmer here more than once, and got a vicarious literary thrill (she’s married to Neil Gaiman). They also sold me my copy of The Woman in Black, but I won’t hold that against them.

3. Harvard Book Store: Quirkier than The Coop (the other major bookstore in the Square), bigger than Raven, with its own used book cellar where you can bring in your books for cash or store credit, Harvard Book Store is pretty ideal. What I love most about this place is the atmosphere. Unlike the Porter Square Books, which is pretty boxy and small, Harvard Book Store is a meandering, high ceilinged place- rolling ladders and the whole bit. They will also print out books for you from an online database, which is pretty cool. Apparently people often start dates here. My favorite thing I’ve ever seen here was a science fiction novel they created a new cover for. The dust jacket covered an incredibly ugly Star Wars-esque cover illustration with stick figure renderings of the main characters and included an explanation from the employees that the book was so awesome they really didn’t want the hideous cover to deter you. I didn’t buy the book, but I bought that these are dedicated employees.

4. Derby Square Bookstore: Salem, MA, just a commuter rail ride away! This is not a place to go if you’re looking for a specific book, but rather somewhere to go if you want a book to find you. Tiny and tucked into Salem’s main tourist drag, Derby Square consists of gigantic stacks of books you wander through around around- and I do mean stacks, no bookshelves necessary (see image above). This makes it a challenge to retrieve something from the bottom of a pile, but the staff person on duty is usually happy to assist you if you’re not into the idea of death by book avalanche. All the books here are half off the list price- great spot to find recent best sellers (and surprisingly, many YA favorites!). Not a place to settle in and read for hours, but a place to explore and definitely buy.

5. Manchester By the Book: Also a quick walk from the commuter rail. Not unlike Commonwealth Books, Manchester By the Book in Manchester by-the-Sea is a treasure trove of rare books and early editions. Very quirky, good displays, has that old used bookstore feel. My first trip there for Valentine’s Day 2011, they had a spectacular Austen themed display and Austen spin-off section. Naturally, I was completely won over.  I found some spectacular children’s books, including beautiful copies of the Brothers Grimm, the Andrew Lang Fairy Books, etc. Being a seaside town, they have plenty of nautical themed books. The leather armchairs and tall bookshelves make this a great place to hide on a winter’s afternoon. If you’re looking for a peaceful break from the city, I strongly recommend a walk on the beach and stopping in here at any time of year. Warning: it is impossible to leave without buying something.

This concludes our trip through northeastern Massachusetts. Y’all come back now, y’hear?

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