My Back Pages: A Look at the Brattle Book Shop

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Posted June 3, 2013 by Tony McMillen in Business
A perfect linchpin: Among my favorite parts of the store are the bargain books for sale outside the shop.

Downtown Crossing isn’t just a place—it’s a living, breathing thing, perpetually in a state of flux, evolving and expanding. But one thing that hasn’t changed much is the presence of my favorite Boston bookstore, the Brattle Book Shop.

Founded in 1825 and owned and operated by the Gloss family since 1949, the Brattle Book Shop is a landmark for both downtown Boston and the United States as a whole. The Brattle is the third-oldest bookstore in America. So, obviously, whatever they’re doing works. But what’s kept it around for so long? Why has it succeeded downtown, where competitors like Barnes & Noble and Borders have failed?

“Part of it is we’ve been in Boston for such a long time,” explains Ken Gloss, the Brattle Book Shop’s current proprietor. “Another thing is that used-book businesses are also a little different than chain bookstores because we can be a little bit out of the way and people will still come to us. They’ll search us out, they’ll look.”

Not that the Brattle is at all hard to find. One of my favorite aspects of the store is the bargain priced books for sale located outside the shop. Walking down West street, it’s usually the first thing you notice about this Boston bookstore. As long as it’s not a rainy day, there are hundreds of books in an outside lot waiting for you to comb through. “They’re probably the best sign we could ever have,” Gloss says. But, of course, one of the reasons the shop can afford to fill up an entire outdoor lot with books is that they own all the property.

“In 1980, we bought the property,” Gloss tells me. “We own the building and we own the lot. One of the best parts about that is that as the area of Downtown Crossing has improved tremendously—particularly in the last 10, 15 years—we’re not worried that our next lease is going to triple or quadruple. We know we’re secure. We can pretty much estimate what taxes and what expenses will be year to year over the next 15, 20 and hopefully 30 years.”

Brattle Book Shop

Finding the right book at Brattle Book Shop. Photo Credit: Bruce Berrien

And it’s not unreasonable to think that the Brattle Book Shop will continue on for 30 more years or even further. Yes, many Boston bookstores have come and gone, but most of these have been chain stores. What applies to them doesn’t necessarily apply to a place like the Brattle. “Used books stores, each one of them, is a small little business that’s unique in that they take on the personality of the owner,” says Gloss. “So they’re not a big huge corporate structure that has huge amounts of debt and tons of overhead. Smaller used bookstores like the Brattle Book Shop can control a lot of those things.”

Gloss adds, “Besides our used books, we also have rare books.” Alongside running the shop, Gloss is a book appraiser for the Antiques Roadshow. So, the man might know a little bit about old and rare books.

But he’s always eager to find out more. “A lot of people might not realize that we also do appraisals at the store, as well,” Gloss says. “So if you want to know what you may have, we can certainly help you out there, too.”

Since he’s worked so many years in the business, I asked him if he had any favorite finds—any holy grails that he’s tracked down or white whales that have always eluded him. I also made a mental note to cut back on the literary references with my questions.

“One thing [that] comes to mind, since the movie just came out, is we got a first edition of The Great Gatsby. It was a nice copy, but what made it truly special was that it was inscribed, ‘To the greatest living poet, T. S. Eliot, sincerely, F. Scott Fitzgerald.'” If that’s not enough, Gloss went on to say, “T. S. Eliot annotated just about every page of the book. That was a terrific find.”

As Gloss mentioned earlier, small businesses can take on the personality of their owner, and this definitely rings true of the Brattle. Gloss’s own passion for books comes through in the store’s sprawling, all-encompassing selection, as well as its dedicated clientele.

“That’s what keeps it interesting for us and that’s what keeps our customers coming in,” Gloss says. “Because they never know what’s going to show up one day to the next. As a matter of fact, we have one customer who comes nearly every single day. He even calls in sick when he’s not coming in. I mean, you have employees who do that, but you don’t really have too many customers who do that. But he’s concerned that the day he doesn’t come in is the day we’re going to put a book on the shelf that he’s been looking for and he’s going to miss it.”

While that customer’s commitment may seem a tad excessive, one visit to the Brattle will make you understand. The shop stands as a perfect linchpin between downtown Boston’s history and its future. Or, as Gloss puts it: “Downtown Boston—with all the building that’s happened, the restaurants, the stores, the theaters, all of the people moving into the area—it’s just been a tremendous boost for us and everyone else. A lot of these people, whether they’re students living in dorms or people living in new condos downtown, they all care about what the area looks like. The BID [Business Improvement District] has really helped make things so much cleaner, which has caused so much more foot traffic. And we’re one of those, I hope, unique stores that encourages people to not only come to Boston but specifically make a trip downtown.”

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