The Brattle Book Shop is tucked into an innocuous side street that branches off of one of Boston’s busy retail corridors, Downtown Crossing. If you’re not looking for the Brattle, you’re not going to find it unless you randomly turn onto West St. and glance away from your phone long enough to catch the outsized no.2 pencil that looks like a stolen prop from Pee-Wee’s Playhouse gracing the awning of the storefront. Just next to the store in the empty, adjoining lot there is an outdoor book market. Set up every day, weather permitting, carriages of used book turn the skanky city lot into an open-air library of sorts. Looking down on the books are the faces of famous authors such as Dr. Seuss, Toni Morrison, and W.B. Yeats, portrayed in large, black and white squares to form a quilt-like mural of literary greatness.
It can feel a bit magical to find the Brattle this way, as if you’ve slipped into a tiny tear in the space-time continuum and ended up in another time and place, as if you’ve happened upon something special, strange, and completely otherworldly—words that describe our oversaturated, hyperactive present moment less and less. All of this and books, too.
I cheated. I went looking for the Brattle. It was a bit of a wordnerd, book junky fail on my part to have never made a point to seek out this historic, antiquarian bookstore in my hometown. I know I’ve taken for granted this piece of rare earth continues to exist in the city. Unlike so many other indie bookstores hanging on by little more than spit and gravity, the Brattle is something of a permanent fixture in the commonwealth: a little engine that could since 1825.
Three floors that pack in thousands of books, the Brattle is also known for housing a large collection for rare, first edition, and antiquarian books. Those sit in the penthouse—the third floor—where there is a help desk and someone who politely asks you to leave your bag with them lest some signed first edition of the Bible wander its way into your purse. There’s nothing particularly remarkable about the Brattle—no stained glass windows or hand-carved banisters or comfy leather chairs that once belonged to the Vanderbilt family. It doesn’t need those things. The Brattle doesn’t want to give you Instagram candy, it wants to take you somewhere.
I spent a good long while roaming around on the third floor, which is a small space with bookshelves on the perimeter and a few rows of shelves running down the middle. Even if I happened to pluck a rare edition of To The Lighthouse from the shelf, I could never afford it; I wasn’t shopping, I was just adventuring. I leafed through medical books from the 1800s, Civil War history books written in the 1930s, and slim volumes of poetry from obscure French and British writers. I went down a regional wormhole skimming books about many of the surrounding New England towns like Cambridge, Arlington, and Provincetown Massachusetts that were compiled around the turn of the twentieth century. These read as part town report and part tourism guide, detailing popular destinations such as museums and festivals and relaying things about employment and the environment. Each book its own time capsule to places that are still very much here and also not here any longer. Each one laced with a healthy dose of Massachusetts pride being the primary manufacturer of glass eyes or the the town with the most Catholic priests turned Bishops. The more things change, the more they stay wicked awesome for us Massholes, as the saying goes around these parts at least.
One whole wall is filled with assorted books grouped by “interesting or unique cover designs.” The exquisitely wrought jewel-toned volumes embossed in gold leaf, etched with floral or other types of design patterns revealed craftsmanship that has a marginal place in our contemporary lives. So beautiful were these collections of books that the subject matter was neglible. There could have been a book about 14th century marital aides in there and no one would have known, distracted by the illustrations of peacocks and other exotic birds running along the boarder of the cover. I imagined someone coming in and dropping a grand to buy whole stacks of these books to line the built in black walnut shelves of the study at their lake house in Vermont.
The Brattle Book Shop invites you to not just step back in time, but step out of time, out of your own time preoccupied in your technology to engage with something in the present. The store invites you to look, to touch, to think, to dream, to be startled, to be inspired, to have an opinion, to have an experience that you might not have had if you continued on your way past the nondescript side street. All of this and books, too.