“I hope I do this forever. 100 years from now, I hope you come back and interview me and I’ll still be doing this.”
“The history you can trace back to the 1820s, but for all practical purposes, the store was going out of business in 1949. My father was getting married, my mother had $500, and with that they bought half interest in the store. And it’s always been in Boston, because with the name Brattle, people always think of Brattle street in Harvard Square but when my parents first started, there was a little side street in what was Scollay Square, now is where City Hall Plaza is. And to make it even more confusing, the street doesn’t exist anymore – it’s literally where City Hall Plaza is.
My father built the store with his love of books, his hard work, his knowledge – he was also a character and a showman. We’ve had seven different locations over the years, mainly due to urban renewal. When my father would move the store he would run big book sales and then a giveaway the last day – gave away over 200,000 books that way.
We’ve been on West Street where we are now since 1969. We were in a building where the empty lot is next to us that was a wooden 1840s building. It burned down in 1980 – literally burned to the ground. We rented for a few years up the street and then in 1984 we bought this building. So, what you see now, we’ve been on this street since ‘69, we’ve been in this building since the early 80s, and the lot, because we bought that in 60s is why we can have outdoor books.
And quite honestly, the area when were first here was a pretty rundown area of the city, it was what they called ‘the Combat Zone,’ which was sort of all the strip clubs. Now, a small condo at $1,000,000 is relatively cheap, so if we didn’t own the property I don’t know where we’d be whenever the next lease cycle came up.”
“In a way, it was good for us that it was a rundown area, because there was no way we could have afforded to rent, then eventually buy, in the area if it had been a prime spot. Slowly but surely, it’s changed tremendously. A lot of the buildings, the condos, the hotels, the movie theaters, the theatres themselves have picked up, a couple of colleges have moved into the area – so it’s become an area you see a lot of activity on, at night there are a lot of people out, so, like I say, property values have just gone through the roof.
And if you talk to people who run new and/or used book stores, there are a few in New York I can think of, and usually in a [news]story, in the last paragraph of the story: “and they own the property,” and that’s essentially subsidizing the fact that you can have a book business. Because the reality is, if we were to sell this building, if I were to retire, nobody could afford to buy the business and the building and still run a bookstore.
But I can and I like it and I enjoy it, and until I can’t do it – literally, cannot do it – anymore, I’ll be doing it.”
“The history, the literary history – I mean, I’m in a book store. Also too, and if you look at it this gets into the history, the downtown, the land has changed. If you look at a map of Boston back in the 1600s, it’s tiny compared to now – the Back Bay was filled in, actually if you went two or three blocks down Washington street at high tide, Boston became an island because it was just a tiny little peninsula.
Also, it’s a very international and cosmopolitan city. A couple of things that really stand out, beyond the literary and the education, is the colleges, the universities, and the medical facilities – the hospitals, the doctors. I mean, when you think of Boston, probably, around the world, after the history, education and medical facilities are probably one of the things people come in for.
Also, it’s pretty and its walkable – that’s another thing about Boston – and you have the Ocean, the Harbor, which can be really interesting and fun too.”
“A lot of the laying out of the city goes to a lot of the changes. The topography has changed. I mean, Beacon Hill, where the statehouse is, was much higher. Like I said, it came to a little peninsula. They kept adding land, filling in harbors, the Back Bay area – it was called the Back Bay because it was a bay. The Charles River and all that, it was tidal. A lot of that has been built up, segment, piece, little bit by little bit, and there were hills and so on…
I’ve lived here all my life, I’ve driven here all my life. Yeah, I know how to get around – there are some areas where even I have trouble with the one-way streets. I imagine for people who aren’t used to this it’s hard. I have a niece who has lived in Florida her entire life – the idea of parallel parking was a foreign concept. The fact that you had to pull in,as opposed to just in a mall, you zip right in and zip right out. So, it has its oddities, it has quirks, it has its unusual things, but that’s what makes it interesting.”
“Literally though, I hope I can do this for years to come. I hope I stay healthy to do it – it’s a lot of fun. I mean, not only, you’re seeing the aspect of the store, the outside with our dollar books – and there are people out there all year long. Unless it’s raining or snowing, it’s open, and at 5 degrees out, there’ll be people out there browsing. In 100 degrees out, there’ll be people browsing.
But one of the other interesting aspects of the business that people don’t see as much is almost every day we go out to houses, estates, all over New England, sometimes all over the country, and it’s the treasure hunt. It’s like being Jim Hawkins on Treasure Island. Never knowing what you’re going to see, who you’re going to meet, the people, the places, the books.
One aspect of it that people don’t think of is that if you buy 1,000 books in a fifth-floor walk-up in 95 degree heat, you’ve got to carry 1,000 books out of a fifth-floor walk-up in 95 degree heat. Or if the dust and mold and mildew are, you know – so that’s a part of it people don’t think of.
There are a lot of the people who come into the store who are real characters. We have one customer who comes in just about every day, he actually calls in sick – I mean, he’s a customer, he calls in sick – because he’s afraid that that day you’re going to put out a book that he’s into.
Some of the customers are just really quirky. We had a collection of cookbooks come in and there were all these little pamphlets that companies or so on, ‘how to cook this’ – I said ‘just put them all out at a dollar or whatever.’ About an hour later this other customer comes in and he’s beside himself. He’s got a little pamphlet – ‘I’ve been looking for this for years and years, and there it is, it’s a dollar!’ And I look at it and the title is ‘Coconuts and Constipation.’ So you never know. You absolutely never know what you’re going to see.
A few years ago, Johnny Depp was in because they were filming a movie. And he was here for a few hours and I got to talk with him. I had a story about him to tell him that he loved. I one time went to a convent…and I went to the library and on the door to the library was a picture of Edward Scissorhands, and then there were other posters of his movies. And I walked in and I said to the nun ‘What is this?’ and she says ‘We love Johnny Depp! We go to all his movies!’ Unfortunately I couldn’t arrange for him to go out and get pictures with the nuns.
You go into other people’s houses – there was this one lady, we went out to her house, she has a big estate and she has incredible stuff. She asked us if we drink coffee. I don’t normally drink coffee but I said fine. My wife was there and as we’re starting to drink the coffee she says ‘Oh, this is Thomas Jefferson’s coffee service’ – and she’s a direct descendant of Thomas Jefferson.
So you go from that to – one of our customers, now unfortunately his father I don’t know, but right now he’s in Sweden because his father just won a Nobel Prize for Physics.
But you throw those examples out and most days something odd, unusual, interesting – people, books, whatever – is coming in. So I literally hope I’ll do this forever. I have daughters, they don’t – one is very local, her husband’s a lawyer, they’ll do fine. The other lives in Nairobi, I doubt she’s going to come home to run the business.
And unless you have the passion and really want to do it – why should they want to do what I love if it’s not what they love? I took it over from my father. Hardest part about that was working for my father, by far. So again, the hope for the future is to never stop doing it and always being in good health to be able to do it.
Limited edition print available (alpha edition):
Giclée (Archival Inkjet) print w/ quotes, in window cutout, typed on artist’s 1955 Olympia SM3 Typewriter.
1” Matte Black Frame, 2” Ivory Mat, Archival Hinge Mount, UV Glass.
8.75″ x 12.25″ (Framed: 14.75″ x 18.25″)