Weekender | Used bookstores are Boston’s hidden gems

Many students are familiar with the process of buying books: With each new semester comes the ever-daunting task of trying to find the correct editions without spending all of next year’s paychecks. As stressful as buying books can be, the process can be significantly more enjoyable (and less expensive) if one buys used copies. Far different than descending into the basement of the Tufts University bookstore or receiving a package from Chegg in the mail, perusing the aisles of a used bookstore can offer more than just a means to an end. Searching for texts – a task that can often be overwhelming – has the potential to become a hobby in Boston, a city speckled with small, secondhand bookstores.

Raven Used Books delights with low prices

One such gem is Raven Used Books, which has two locations – one in Harvard Square and the other on Newbury Street. The Harvard Square site is home to roughly 16,000 books and receives shipments of over 1,000 new books weekly. Though the shop itself is quite small, it is organized and well kept, and offers a uniquely peaceful space within bustling Harvard Square.

Raven Used Books has a very particular personality. The thick black water pipes that line the shop’s white-washed brick walls and ceiling makes the store feel familiar, like a cleaner, better-lit version of the basement in your childhood home. With its small size and simple yet stylized layout, looking for titles in Raven is a far more intimate experience than visiting a larger chain bookstore. The books denied space on the shelves are stacked on the floor or placed haphazardly on top of random objects, like old metal heaters, further adding to the laid-back ambiance of the store.

Whereas bigger bookstores like Barnes and Noble have entire rows designated for specific categories, Raven usually dedicates only a few shelves to each section – though there are a few exceptions. Fiction/literature and art books, for example, have a more extensive inventory, and many customers flock to the photography/graphic design section, which occupies the back wall of the shop.

One such customer is Benjamin Korsch, a sophomore at University of Massachusetts, Boston, who often spends time searching secondhand bookstores for reasonably priced, hidden treasures.

“I rarely buy non-art books,” said Korsch, who noted that after perusing the shelves of Raven, he would be heading to other used bookstores in the area before the end of the day.

Though he lamented that secondhand bookstores tend to have a far less extensive selection than their corporate counterparts, he is attracted to them because of their low prices. It’s no secret that books can be very expensive, but stores like Raven are perfect for bibliophiles on a budget.

A peaceful, suprising retreat

Price cuts aren’t the only reason people frequent secondhand bookstores; for many, these spaces serve as an excuse to get off campus and relax.

“I’d say we go more when it’s cold because there is nothing else to do,” said sophomore Eleanor Richard.

“It’s fun to sit in a bookstore and look at art books,” she added.

Richard, like Korsch, said that she rarely searches for required academic texts in secondhand bookstores because the books “aren’t always organized in a way that makes sense, and the likelihood that they have what you need is so low.”

For junior Ilona Balagula, however, this chaotic atmosphere is what draws her in. After studying abroad in New Zealand last semester and visiting bookstores there, Balagula returned to the United States with a greater appreciation for Boston’s used bookstore culture. Though she is far from a “book nerd,” Balagula said that a day she spent in Pegasus Books – a used bookstore in Wellington, New Zealand – as one of her fondest memories from her time abroad.

“There is an element of surprise [in a used bookstore],” she said. “[Pegasus] was so cool because there was no structure. All the books were random – they weren’t organized by any normal category.”

Rodney’s Bookstore has extensive inventory

Housing more than 45,000 books, Rodney’s Bookstore – located in Central Square – caters to a wider spectrum of book lovers. Hit by a pine tree aroma upon entering, customers quickly learn that Rodney’s also has a substantial selection of wooden bookshelves available for purchase. Postcards, records, maps, posters and knick-knacks are also for sale, which makes Rodney’s feel somewhat like a thrift shop.

It is precisely this vibe that attracts customers like sophomore Erinn Geyer, who finds Rodney’s similar to the secondhand bookstores in her hometown of Concord, Mass.

“There are some really cool stores in downtown Concord [that] have used books and little knick-knacks that I definitely like to peruse," Geyer said. It is the layout of the store, however, that makes this gem particularly special. The store designates not just a shelf or section, but an entire backroom to all books related to athletics, including sports history, player biographies and sports fiction. There is also a neighboring back room devoted to paperback books, as well as a substantially sized children's reading corner. The shop's most extensive sections are those of art, philosophy, design and science. For Geyer, going to secondhand bookstores feels nostalgic. Less preoccupied with finding the best deals, Geyer is more interested in quality. "When I was little, I really liked to go into used book stores and try to find a cool edition of a book if it was there," she said. With its welcoming staff, finding desired titles in Rodney's is fairly easy and customers can even get advice from the store about local restaurants and bars with the best reading spots. Newcomers and regulars alike will appreciate the friendly exchanges with Rodney's management, which adds a distinct flavor to Central Square's only used bookstore.

Used books and their histories

Boston itself is home to numerous secondhand bookstores, including the créme de la créme of rare and antique books: Brattle Book Shop at Downtown Crossing. With over 250,000 books occupying over three floors and various outdoor racks, Brattle is home to a rich collection of out-of-print and used books, as well as vintage posters and maps. And just a few streets over from Brattle is Commonwealth Books, which has a substantial reserve of rare documents in addition to its collection of 40,000 used titles. Both Brattle Book Shop and Commonwealth Books are the helpful when looking for specific editions of old books or manuscripts. However, some bookshop lovers note that it is not the edition of the book that matters, but who owned it previously. Junior Ryan Parigoris said his favorite aspect of used books "is when there are things written or underlined in them." "I think it's really awesome to see what people thought of the book," he said. "It's almost like you're reading two stories at once." Geyer agreed, recalling when she discovered that the author of one of her used books had signed it for a previous owner. "It's a nice surprise to see that the book that I bought from a used bookstore is signed [for] somebody else," she said. "I [can] imagine the story of who this person is." Whether students are searching for relatively unworn books, browsing for specific editions or meandering through stacks looking for handwritten notes in the margins, visiting secondhand bookstores is undoubtedly a rewarding experience. Boston is a city with a rich literary history, and while bookstores in other cities have closed their doors, Raven Used Books, Rodney's Bookstore, Brattle Book Shop and Commonwealth Books remain open, burgeoning with previously loved literature begging to be read.