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Beyond Bargain Books: A Peek into Boston’s Oldest Bookstore

Located on West Street, Brattle Bookshop is one of the oldest used and antique bookstores in the country. 

by Allison McAuliffe
January 21, 2022

Boston is overflowing with rich history and nostalgic charm. From the cobblestone sidewalks, narrow streets lined with brownstones and some of the oldest restaurants and churches in the country, its city streets are a perfect combination of old and new. Famous for historical figures like Paul Revere, sports rivalries, chow-dah and prestigious universities, there’s something for everyone to explore and experience in Boston. 

Tucked between parking garages, college dorms and cafes lies a true gem for book lovers and literary enthusiasts of all types. A short walk from Boston Common in the Downtown Crossing neighborhood is Brattle Bookshop. Located on West Street, Brattle Bookshop is one of the oldest used and antique bookstores in the country. 

The iconic storefront features a giant No. 2 pencil above the front entrance. Though it looks small and quaint, the three-story building is home to roughly 250,000 books and magazines that line the aisles and shelves, you may think you’re in an optical illusion. You could spend hours sifting through an array of obscure and rare texts along with classic works one would expect to find. When the weather is friendly enough, the alley alongside the building is transformed into an outdoor space where a mixed bag of books for beyond bargain prices awaits you.

The Keepers of Brattle Bookshop

The shop was founded in 1825 and the Gloss family has operated the place since 1949. Ken Gloss and his father George built Brattle Bookshop into one of the largest antiquarian book stores in the U.S. Ken Gloss is the proprietor of the shop and appraises books for Harvard, Northeastern and even the FBI. He’s become well-known for his knowledge on almost everything bookish, appearing on television shows, radio programs and podcasts. 

What Awaits you Inside

The first floor of the Brattle hosts a selection of children’s books, graphic novels and fiction titles, all well-organized and ready for perusing. As you climb the winding staircase to the second floor, posters of works sold there – a signed picture of Abraham Lincoln, a 1906 manuscript of works by Thoreau among others – decorate the walls. Here you’ll find nonfiction, biographies, science books and the like. 

But the third floor is where the real magic is. Through a paneled door labeled “Rare Book Room” awaits vintage and antique titles – first editions, limited edition printings, collections of letters, plays, poetry. It’s a bookworm’s heaven and historical archive all in one place. Even if you’re not an avid reader, anyone can appreciate the Brattle Bookshop. 

Though space is tight, everything is kept organized and easy to navigate. The friendly and knowledgeable staff are always ready to help you on your search. Though we can read from our tablets and phone, or listen to books on an app, there’s something to be said about picking up a book and flipping through the pages. So the next time you’re heading to the T without anything to occupy your ride home, or happen to be strolling through the Downtown Crossing neighborhood, pop into Brattle Bookshop. You won’t be disappointed. 

After earning a degree in journalism, Allison took some time away from writing and became a personal trainer. She learned so much about how to communicate with a variety of people and how to inspire and motivate others. Now as a freelancer, she loves writing for the health, fitness and wellness space along with features highlighting local shops, restaurants, events, etc.

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