Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Literary Destinations

I was about to write more about our new Destination Literature section, highlighting travel essays and literature in translation from different countries around the world. But then I read Kate Taylor's article in the New York Times, "Fiscal Woe Haunting Baltimore Poe House." Due to lack of funding, the Edgar Allan Poe house museum may be forced to close its doors. Ever since I read in a recent issue of Tin House, A.N. Dever's "On the Outskirts," about her pilgrimage to the Poe House, I have wanted to visit. The thought that the Edgar Allan Poe house museum may be nevermore, is haunting me.

Our Destination Literature section at Booksmith is full of literature meant to lead your imagination to new destinations. When I heard about the threat to this specific literary destination, I began to think about the importance of our nation's literary sites. Like many readers at Booksmith, one of my favorite reading experiences is witnessing the very real connection between literature and life. Nowhere is this relationship more tangible to me than when I am touring the old haunts of an author, walking through their landscapes, enjoying the view from their writing desks. In her Times article, Taylor reports that Poe's presence is very much a part of the Poe House experience, described by guests as haunting and, well, creepy.

I also began thinking of other literary landmarks, even closer to home. One of these is the former site of the Old Corner Bookstore, located at Washington and School Street and once home to Globe Corner Books, which recently closed their doors to Harvard Square. Part of the impulse to expand our travel literature section began with the announcement that the Globe Corner would close for good. When the Brookline Barnes&Noble closed, we expanded our magazines, when Bob Slate closed, we accomodated with a new "Writer's Corner" full of beautiful stationary, journals and art supplies. Booksmith continues to strive to meet the needs of Boston's literary community as the physical spaces devoted to the promotion and provision of literature continue to shrink.

While most readers will remember when the Globe Corner Bookstore was housed at the Old Corner, few can remember the Old Corner's prior residents. The brick building was built in 1712 and from 1833-1864 was the site of a thriving publishing scene, at the center of which sat publishers James T. Fields and William Davis Ticknor. Next to Ticknor's desk was a chair reserved for Nathaniel Hawthorne. Ticknor's young partner Fields worked behind a green curtain in another corner, entertaining the writers on which America's literary foundations rest. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Ralph Waldo Emerson, even Henry David Thoreau all frequented the store in which Boston's literary conversation had its beginnings.

I like to imagine I can still here echoes of that conversation in the aisles of Boston's remaining bookstores. Yet the site of the former Old Corner Bookstore remains empty. For awhile, a Borders thrived across the street, but even that bookstore is closing. The last business I noticed on the Old Corner was a jewelers. Now the Old Corner Bookstore sits empty, its significance marked only with a small plaque, which took me four tries to locate when I first hunted the site down on the Freedom Trail. Services are still held in the church where Paul Revere hung his lantern, the famous harbor is still a thriving port. Yet another of our country's literary sites stands disreguarded at the Old Corner.

Even if a bookselling business can no longer be supported at the site, why not some sort of memorial, something like the first Museum of the Book, a site dedicated to connecting our literary scene today with those of the past? I'm ignorant of the financial cost, but aware of the cultural richness such an endeavor would create. And where better than Boston, seat of our nation's literary beginnings, for such a museum? And what better time than our era of change and innovation, to remember, record and reinstate the value of the enduring book and the spaces to which it takes us?


Jonathan said...

I believe I read somewhere that a Chipolte's is going in. Another victory for blandness.

Anubis said...

Great post, and I agree that something needs to happen in the Old Corner Bookstore (and the Poe House in Baltimore - I've been there and it is worth a visit). When they announced the Borders was shutting down, someone recommended a bunch of independent booksellers share the Borders space with other related businesses so that we wouldn't end up with one more empty building in a dying area of town. Actually, the Old Corner Bookstore might be a better venue for housing a group of businesses willing to share a retail space (is the building owned by the historic foundation or the City?). Maybe author events or lectures on the city's history could be held there to drive people back to that neighborhood and reconnect them with the industry that Boston used to be known for. It would be nice if we had some of the old printing equipment so the City could recreate the experience of the publishing house (like Lowell did with their mills).

Jodie said...

Thanks for your thoughtful reply. I believe the nonprofit organization Historic Boston has the building, and would require a paying tenant. What the Old Corner needs a book-loving, rich patron!