Beyond the Coop


As Starbuck's and Tower Records take over Harvard Square, and the Gap takes over the world, the unique and the independent grow increasingly difficult to track down. Even among bookstores, which were once thriving reminders of individuality and art, the Barnes and Noble monolith (a.k.a. the Harvard Coop) has taken its toll. Its near-monopoly on textbooks leaves little room for the smaller shop. Yet there are still pockets of bookish bohemia dotting the Boston-Cambridge landscape.

Few Wigglesworth residents may realize that they have an outpost of literary iconoclasm practically staring them in the face. Despite its cleaner-than-thou aesthetic, the Harvard Bookstore is "definitely not" part of a chain, according to an offended representative at the store's information desk. As cool as they are, however, someone ought to tell the folks at the Harvard Bookstore to lose the Barnes and Noble-esque green signs and discount stickers on New York Times bestsellers--posing as a chain bookstore is almost more offensive than being one.

Around the corner, the Grolier Poetry Book Shop provides a taste of elusive bohemia. The tiny room, crowded with tall shelves and nothing but poetry serve as welcome antidotes to the Disney-fied independence of the Harvard Bookstore. Plus, Grolier never opens before noon--no true bohemian book-store does mornings.

Further along Plympton Street sits another such bookselling outpost. The Starr Bookshop, tucked into the belly of the Lampoon Castle. Starr sells used books exclusively, which merits distinction among poor starving artists that even Grolier doesn't garner. Unlike fellow Mclntyre and Moore Booksellers (just down Mount Auburn Street), Starr has atmosphere. Mclntyre's white linoleum floors can in no way measure up to Starr's patterned brick, and though both stores have overflowing shelves, only Starr's sag gracefully. Both have exposed pipes, but only Starr's are copper; poor starving artists are still artists, after all.

After Grolier and Starr, any other bookstore (conventional or no) in Harvard Square would be anticlimactic, but Schoenhof's Foreign Books really disappoints. Its bright blue carpet and uniformly shiny particle board shelves scream expense. To its credit, it does stock books in languages ranging from French to Cornish and Babylonian. Unfortunately, at Harvard, the romance of the other is often translated into pretension rather than unconventionality. As Elizabeth C. Oelsner '00, who spends entirely too much time in the Schoenhof's building, comments, "Foreign books are nicer. They're pretty. They're small. They're expensive," none of which adjectives describe la vie boheme.


Outside of the immediate University vicinity, prospects increase. In Porter Square, the Bookcellar ("The Most Fun You Can Have Under Mass Ave.") features an eclectic assortment of bookshelves leaning precariously against its walls. Here, piles upon piles of used books and magazines (Vogue from three months ago, anyone?), a much-used community bulletin board, and a large selection of herbal teas keep company. Yes, the Bookcellar is also a cafe, but never fear: virtually buried among books, the cafe section manages to avoid any comparison to the yuppiefest at the Coop.

Not every bookstore-cafe manages quite so well. The Trident Bookseller and Cafe, despite its earnest endeavors (colored chalk on blackboard slates announce the various esoteric sections; a sign in the window reads "Bonsai Trees for Sale"), cannot escape the implications of its gentrified location. Next to the incense and candles, the magazine rack presents yards of glossy new weeklies which the consumer is not even allowed to bring into the cafe. More egregiously, the cafe features a non-smoking section.

There is no non-smoking section in bohemia, darlings.

Trident's failure cannot be altogether blamed on its Newbury Street address, however. Directly across the street, Victor Hugo Books proclaims, "Most of our rights have already been traded away by those who prefer the safety of government control to the anarchy of individual freedom. Very few people understand the Faustian bargain they have made. This shop is dedicated to those who have rejected the bargain. It is open to those who might reconsider." "Anarchy"? "Faustian bargain"? That's pure bohemia. Packed 12-foot bookshelves tower above Beringer and Johnnie Walker boxes overflowing with books. Rolling metal ladders facilitate browsing. Old black-and white postcards of Dorothy Parker and Charles Baudelaire cover the ends of the shelves. A dark gray cat named Blue stalks the aisles, and its owner (also owner of the store), Vincent McCaffrey, is available for a chat about London.

But even Victor Hugo can't beat Lucy Parsons. Stocking everything from Marx to Zinn to the crazy communist next door's most recent manifesto, the Lucy Parsons Center, a revolutionary bookstore in the heart of Central Square, defines unorthodoxy. Although the Square does have its own admirable revolutionary bookstore, conveniently called Revolution Books, it cannot compete with this Central counterpart.

Lucy Parsons is currently involved in a desperate struggle for its home. Like the evil East Village landlord who tries to evict Roger and Mimi in "Rent," Holmes Realty Trust wants to put the beloved bookstore on the street in order to build an expensive housing and office complex that will do nothing to benefit the people of Central Square. But Lucy Parsons, its volunteers (there is only one paid employee) and its fans have mobilized. Rallies! Protests! Antagonism! Strife! Ah, la boheme! Puccini would be proud.

Visit the truest bohemia around sometime soon, 'cause Holmes is moving in fast. Check out the posters and fliers advertising upcoming actions. Admire the huge red and black anarchy banner that runs along the back wall. Sign a petition or two. Sit on the floor and stay a while; nobody will mind. But be forewarned: the Lucy Parsons Center don't always smell too fresh. But, hey, nobody ever said bohemia smelled good.

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