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Pangloss Bookstore

Circling the Square

By James A. Sharaf

"I'm not sure exactly how we picked the name 'Pangloss' for the store," said owner Herb Hillman. "Partially, I suppose, because it has literary associations, partially because it sounds nice. In addition, however, one has to be a convinced optimist to go into the antiquarian book business. Book-selling has many rewards--but none of them are financial."

Hillman arrived at his Massachusetts Avenue store by a route that includes Swarthmore, Cornell, Europe and Greenwich Village. After graduating from Swarthmore in 1947 with honors in zoology, Hillman went on to graduate school at Cornell. He studied there for a year, teaching comparative physiology to help make ends meet. Then he managed to get away to Europe--"I was sick of Cornell and of American universities in general." Hillman spent a year at Glasgow University and two summers travelling before he returned to Cornell. It was only a term before he left again, this time permanently.

"I suppose I'd been around universities too long," he said, "I was just fed up with them and had a chance to go into the book business with a friend who needed help." Hillman worked for six months with his friend and then decided to break up the partnership and open his own store.

The new store, on MacDougal Street in N. Y.'s Greenwich Village, was staffed by Hillman and his wife Bunny, whom he had met at Cornell. "We got the reputation of being an off-beat book store," Hillman recalled. "National magazines came occasionally to try and do a story on an avant garde Village store but I usually discouraged them. I remember once a photographer from Coronet wanted to take pictures of the shop but asked me to take down our 'Joe Must Go' banner before he began shooting. I threw him out."

Conservative photographers were not the only ones Hillman had to throw out of his store. "Five or six people went nuts in the store. Sometimes I had to call the police but most of the time I was able to handle them myself," he remarked. "I was a varsity wrestler at Swarthmore and well able to defend myself."

Hillman's store soon needed space for expansion and he decided to move rather than commit himself permanently to New York. "It's a wonderful city, the most interesting on this side of the earth, fascinating, complex--but not a very good place to bring our child up," he stated. After a two year search Hillman and his wife settled on Cambridge as the new location. Their store opened here last spring.

The shop limits itself primarily to used scholarly books. "The man who wants a book on plumbing needs something far more useful for running the world than anything I carry," Hillman remarked. "There's no question of snobbery, it's just that I can't sell everything and the best place to draw the line seemed to be at my own interests."

Hillman stopped talking for a moment and glanced around his shop, his gaze resting for a moment on a browser. "I sell a lot of books to people who come in not wanting anything in particular. One thing that always hurts, though, is to see someone come across a book he obviously wants and just as obviously can't afford. I remember all too well the times at Cornell when I went hungry to buy books."

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