Book-browsing in Boston

I have a thing for Boston. The first time I visited was in 2012. I recently went back and spent a few days in this beautiful city.

One of the reasons I love Boston is for its literary history and the continued appreciation for the written word the city seems to have.

The last time I visited, I took a tour of the public library, joined a literary walking tour and went up to Cambridge to see Harvard and go to the Harvard Book Store. I didn’t get a chance to do those things this time around, but I did do some book-browsing at three great bookstores and one pop-up library.

My first stop was Brattle Book Shop, a famous used and antiquarian bookstore. I went even though I knew it would be closed. The shop has an outdoor section, and I wanted to get a look at the artwork. The mural is visible at all times, but the doors painted with images of books and book spines are only shown when the shop is closed, as these are the doors that lock up the books.

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Brattle Book Shop mural

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I did, of course, return to the shop when it was open.

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Then I headed over to Commonwealth Books, another store selling used books. It’s not as easy to find as Brattle, as Commonwealth is down an alley, but there are plenty of books to look through when you arrive.

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The only bookstore I visited that sells new books was Trident Booksellers & Cafe, a really cute shop in the Back Bay area. I even had lunch in the upstairs cafe.

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I also got to do some book-browsing when I wasn’t expecting it. I went to the very touristy Faneuil Hall/Quincy Market area and stumbled upon a small library out in the square. It made me smile to find it there.

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Next time you visit a new place, maybe skip the museums and galleries and just do some book-browsing instead. Admittedly, it might end up costing you more than the price of museum admission if the book-browsing excursions turn into book-buying excursions. Set yourself a limit so you’ll (hopefully) have some cash left in your wallet by the time you head home.

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Lured back to London

Damn tourists, I muttered to myself as I pushed past a group of teenagers dressed in matching red T-shirts. I’d veered off a main road on to a side street in Soho to avoid the crowded sidewalks, yet there I was, confronted with a swarm of bodies, who seemed to serve only one purpose: to get in my way.

Of course I was aware that I, just like them, was a tourist in London. And I realized that while I tried to remain aware of my surroundings, it was possible that at some point when I paused to snap a picture of the London Eye or of Big Ben, I might have—unintentionally, of course—stood in someone’s way as they tried to get past. I could have been an annoyance to a Londoner or a few as they rushed to get to work, or home or to meet someone. I, however, didn’t have any appointments to get to. I merely wanted to make sure I could make the most of my time in England’s glorious capital. I didn’t want to miss out.

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When choosing where to go on vacation, London was an easy decision. I’d been only once before, 10 years ago, and loved every inch and second I experienced there. Of course I had barely scratched the surface, merely dipped my toe in the water. So I wanted to go back. I yearned to go back. But I also wanted to see more of England than just its biggest city.

A couple of years ago, I read about the Larkin Trail, a self-guided tour of landmarks related to the life and poetry of Hull-based poet Philip Larkin. There is much to say about my time in Hull, about following in the footsteps of a poet whose work I greatly admire. But those words are not meant for this post. Larkin’s Hull deserves its own space. So that will be put on hold for later. This post is for London.

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How did your bookshelves get so full?

I acquired many of my books in a similar fashion: I bought them from a bookstore, either on a whim or as a planned purchase. But whenever I look through my books, I realize that some are special to me not solely because of their content, but also because of the memory of how they landed on my bookshelves. Here are a few stories behind the how I came into some of my books.

The Id Kid by Linda Besner

The Id Kid — Linda Besner

I like going to readings, but most of the time I go to see writers I already admire. But every now and then, I go and see writers I’ve never heard of, and sometimes end up discovering someone I really like. This was the case with Linda Besner. I saw her read at Harbourfront Centre a couple of years ago, and enjoyed her poetry so much that I bought a copy of The Id Kid and got Besner to sign it after the reading.

All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy

All the Pretty Horses — Cormac McCarthy

Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses was one of the books on the docket for an American literature course I took in university. As with most of the books I was required to read, I picked up this copy at the campus bookstore. It was the first Cormac McCarthy book I read, and I liked it quite a bit. But it’s difficult to know if the impression it made on me was the writing itself or if it was because I noticed similarities to my grandfather’s life, as he was a cowboy in the time period the book is set in. When I finished the book, I told my grandfather about it, which opened up a dialogue about some of his other life experiences. I’m not sure I would have heard those stories otherwise.

Lullabies for Little Criminals by Heather O'Neill

Lullabies for Little Criminals — Heather O’Neill

Earlier this year, I borrowed Lullabies for Little Criminals by Heather O’Neill from the library. I enjoyed it so much that I kind of wanted my own copy, but it didn’t seem practical to go to the bookstore to buy a book I’d just read. When I found a used copy at a book sale a few months later for $1.50, I took it as a sign that it was meant to be mine.

A Glossary of Literary Terms by M. H. Abrams

A Glossary of Literary Terms — M. H. Abrams

While in university, many of my professors recommended A Glossary of Literary Terms, but it was never a required text for any of my courses. The number of recommendations made me curious, and I decided I needed to get my hands on it. When I looked for the book online, I learned it was out of print. So I went to eBay—where I often looked for things I wanted to buy in the early 2000s—and I bought a used copy. I ended up citing it in a lot of my English essays, too. I guess those professors really do know what they’re talking about.

Jude the Obscure -- Thomas Hardy

Jude the Obscure — Thomas Hardy

I bought Jude the Obscure at my neighbourhood bookstore, which is not much of a story. The more interesting (and perhaps a little embarrassing) story is why I decided to read this book in the first place. Years ago, I saw an interview with Jude Law on a late-night talk show. Law mentioned he was named after the main character in Hardy’s book, remarking that it was odd for his parents to name their son after a character who has such miserable experiences. And that sounded like a book I wanted to read. So I guess sometimes watching television can lead to reading more books.

A Boy's Will and North of Boston -- Robert Frost

A Boy’s Will and North of Boston — Robert Frost

This book was given to me, but I’ve never met the gift-giver. The woman who gave me this book worked with my father when I was a teenager. I suppose my dad mentioned to her that I liked Robert Frost, and she gave him this book to pass on to me. I thought—and still think—that it was a very sweet thing to do.

Trainspotting -- Irvine Welsh

Trainspotting — Irvine Welsh

In high school, a friend gave me a copy of Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting as a Christmas present. When I tried to read it, I had difficulty following because of the Scottish accent the book is written in. I ended up abandoning it, even though I absolutely loved the film. Years later, I realized that if I’d been able to tackle Chaucer, surely I could manage Welsh. I ended up liking the book even more than the film. I’m glad I gave this one a second chance.

Poems to Remember

Poems to Remember

I grew up in a house that had a lot of books in it. It wasn’t uncommon for my parents, my brother or me to look through the family-room bookshelves for something to read. But a few of those books didn’t make it back to those shelves and ended up leaving the house when I did. You could say they’re stolen, but I prefer to say they are on extended loan. Besides, the name scribbled on the inside cover of this copy of Poems to Remember belongs to my uncle. Whether he gave it to my parents or whether they stole it before I stole it, I doubt my parents remember (or my uncle, for that matter).

The Chairs Are Where the People Go -- Misha Glouberman and Sheila Heti

The Chairs Are Where the People Go — Misha Glouberman and Sheila Heti

Something that is really fun is when you win books. I haven’t won a lot of contests in my life, but the few times I have won mostly awarded me books. I won my copy of The Chairs Are Where the People Go from The Word on the Street book festival, when they ran a “guess the author” contest on Twitter a couple of years ago.

After looking over my shelves, I’ve realized my book collection needs more found books. If I take a trip to London, maybe I’ll find a book on the tube. It’s possible.

My final trip to Nicholas Hoare Books

I know—I already wrote about the closing of Nicholas Hoare Books. But yesterday was the store’s last day of business, and it wouldn’t feel right if I didn’t share something about my final visit. So here are some pictures (and some words, too).

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There were quite a few people meandering through the store. I watched as they gathered their final purchases, said farewell to the staff and expressed their appreciation to Mr. Hoare himself.

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The shelves have never looked so bare.

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Even though nothing was discounted, several bibliophiles walked around with armfuls of books pressed against their chests. The measly two books I bought looked almost inadequate in comparison.

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my final acquisitions

I’m used to finding a Nicholas Hoare bookmark tucked inside my purchase. Before I left the store, I looked in my bag to make sure one was there. After all, this would be the last time I’d receive a bookmark. I was happy to see the bookseller had slipped in a few.

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I paused at the entryway before leaving, taking another look at all of the books and the people who were admiring them. I watched an elderly man seated by the window as he flipped through the pages of a hardcover. I watched a young boy as he rushed to find the children’s section at the back. I watched as customers and staff chatted and shared memories.

It was hard to walk out that door knowing it would be my last time doing so, but saying goodbye is never easy.

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Saying goodbye to a bookshop

One of my favourite bookstores is closing. If you live in the Toronto area, particularly if you’re interested in books (and you probably are, if you’re reading my blog), you might have heard that Nicholas Hoare is retiring and will be closing his flagship store on April 1.

I can’t remember how old I was when I first visited Nicholas Hoare, but I do remember the impression it made on me. The warm lighting and the beautiful displays of books against the wooden shelves mesmerized me. Now, whenever I open that door and walk up those few steps, when I hear the creak of the floorboards, the classical music, when I walk by the fireplace–it all feels so welcoming and comfortable. And it might help that the store specializes in British books, as I admit to being a bit of an anglophile.

The quietness of the store has its appeal, too. I’ve always loved listening to other people discuss books. With these kinds of conversations, it somehow seems okay to eavesdrop or to jump in with a comment.

When I think of some of the books I’ve purchased from the store in the past year, I can’t think of one that was disappointing. I’m not sure if this is due to fine selection by the staff, or just some magical luck, but the books that immediately come to mind were all enjoyable: David Sedaris’ Me Talk Pretty One Day, Jeremy Mercer’s Time Was Soft There, Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists, Alix Ohlin’s Inside, Mary Horlock’s The Book of Lies, Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast.

It was at Nicholas Hoare where I found a beautiful copy of Philip Larkin’s The Whitsun Weddings that I gave to my father for his birthday one year. I’ve shopped for books for my cousin’s daughter in the children’s section at the back of the shop, and I’ve purchased various Christmas presents for friends and family here. And, of course, there have been those occasions when I’ve come in just to browse.

Near the end of 2012, I attended an in-store event where Nicholas Hoare presented some of his favourite books of the season. I feel fortunate to have had the chance to hear Mr. Hoare speak in person, as his passion for books was certainly evident.

I wish Mr. Hoare a happy retirement, and I thank him and his wonderful staff for all of their hard work. I’ll miss this store quite a bit, more than I thought I could miss a bricks-and-mortar shop, probably because it’s been much more than merely bricks and mortar.