As a bibliophile, my first idea when moving to “Beantown” was, naturally, to discover the best bookstores in Boston. But recent discussion around the climate crisis has pushed me to think more critically about my habits: shutting off the sink while I brush my teeth, waiting to do a full load of laundry rather than tossing just a few items at a time into the washer out of convenience, composting sandwich crusts and leftovers rather than throwing them away.
Luckily, Boston has plenty of used book vendors which allow me to read books I love on my own time (unlike the library) while supporting local businesses and without contributing to deforestation via book pages.
While checking out these bookstores, I based my ratings off three main criteria: assortment, ambiance, and access. Assortment being how many titles each store offers, and the variety within them. Ambiance being the “vibes” of each location: how does it feel to be in the space itself? Access being the ability to browse, inquire about and order titles virtually during the pandemic (or in the middle of a chaotic week). These are my top three.
Brattle Book Shop // Downtown
Open since 1825, Brattle Book Shop is one of the oldest and largest antiquarian bookstores in the nation. Stop by between 9 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. on any weekday to scour the three floors of literature made up of over 250,000 books. In addition, the store features a seasonal outdoor display of hundreds of discounted books with prices as low as $3 apiece.
Want to learn more about one of America’s oldest bookstores?
Brattle Book Shop receives perfect marks for assortment, ambiance and access. The variety of titles spans old and new, hardcovers and paperbacks, generic and rare. There is a dog named Duke rumored to be in charge of customer service who, although I did not get to meet during my visit, certainly would have matched the comfy interior ambiance of this space. As mentioned above, the store does offer outdoor shopping which may be a more comfortable alternative to COVID-19 cautious customers. However, The Brattle Book Shop also provides a virtual ordering system and a delivery service on their website for book lovers.
Commonwealth Books // Downtown
Located in the middle of downtown Boston, Commonwealth Books is truly an oasis for readers. The quaint store holds an impressive 40,000 titles in sections ranging from history to poetry. A unique feature of this space is the small reading area, which allows bookworms to preview items they’re considering purchasing. Commonwealth Books also carries a selection of prints and other art pieces that date back as far as the 1600s, which can add a vintage vibe to any dorm room or apartment. The physical shop is open seven days a week, making for convenient shopping; however, items can also be inquired about, paid for and shipped via Commonwealth’s website.
The best part of Commonwealth Books, in my opinion, was the true used nature of the collection. Many of the titles available here are rare due to their respective ages. This is not somewhere I would recommend to a reader scouring shelves for discounts on popular novels as much as to a bookworm who is looking to expand their personal shelf.
Raven Used Books // Cambridge
Raven Used Books is located in Harvard Square and specializes in scholarly and literary books. However, their collection includes philosophy, history, art, science and more. Many of these titles are donated by local universities, which allows for Raven’s prices to hover around 50-80% off of the cover price at retail bookstores. The space contains approximately 15,000 titles, but has an admirable turnover of around 1,200 new books each week, according to their website.
While you are in the neighborhood… check out some other educational hot spots in the Cambridge episode of Boston Rob Does Beantown.
Raven has the strongest section I’ve ever seen in a used bookstore for fresh, popular fiction titles. If you are someone on a budget who is looking to read well-liked, frequently talked about literature, this is the place for you. Their sections of philosophy, history and art books were also uniquely bountiful. I would certainly recommend checking Raven Used Books out for pleasure reading and supplementing textbook necessities alike.
Whether you’re a college student or a professional in the Boston area, be sure to check out one of these local used book vendors to find your newest read.