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Starr Fades Into History

Bookstore at back of Lampoon to close after 43 years

By Daniela J. Lamas, Crimson Staff Writer

Marc Starr watches silently as 116 boxes of used books, piled on the brick sidewalk outside his 29 Plympton St. storefront, are loaded into a van to be sold to Daedalus Fine Books in Oregon.

Inside the Starr Book Shop, stairs lead down to the basement, which housed most of the stores books before Starr closed that section of his store in January.

And soon the entire store will suffer the same fate.

Starr says he is trying to sell much of his inventory before he closes the used bookstore in July.

Although a petition asking the Harvard Lampoon, a semi-secret Sorrento Square social organization which used to occasionally publish a so-called humor magazine, to renew the lease of its 43-year-tenant has garnered around 150 signatures in the past month, Starr says he has no choice but to leave the Bow Street castle.

The Lampoon will no longer rent out the location after July in order to expand the magazines production facilities, says Tyler E. Chapman ’90, a lawyer for the Lampoon.

The Starr Book Shop has rented out the space in the Plympton Street side of the Lampoon’s building since 1958. Before the family’s used book business moved into the castle, Starr says they had two businesses down Mt. Auburn Street and one in downtown Boston.

“We all feel very strongly and positively about him and the bookstore, but the Lampoon wants to use that space,” Chapman says.

According to Chapman, the Lampoon has allowed the Starr Book Shop to remain in the Bow Street castle free of rent for the past year and will allow the bookstore to stay without paying rent until July. In addition, he says, the Lampoon plans to give the bookshop $10,000 in moving and relocation expenses.

“We like him, we like his store, but we need to expand our production facilities,” Chapman says.

But the news that the Starr Bookshop will be forced to leave has fueled the resolve of Cambridge resident Carol Bankerd, who says she will campaign for the Starr to remain in its longtime Square spot.

When she learned about the Lampoon’s plans to reclaim the space, she drew up a petition asking the Lampoon to renew the lease past July 2002. She placed copies of the petition in Café Pamplona, upstairs at Cambridge Architectural Books and at the Bow Street Florist.

She says she hopes her efforts will influence the Lampoon to allow the Starr Book Shop to remain indefinitely.

The Starr occupies a unique place in the Square, Bankerd says, particularly now that rising rents have closed many of the Square’s used bookstores.

Watching beloved used bookstores like McIntyre & Moore leave the Square taught her the importance of campaigning to make sure longtime establishments remain in the Square, Bankerd says.

“My consciousness was raised,” Bankerd says. “If we thought we could have saved that bookshop, we would have done something. We weren’t thinking. Now people are. We’ve lost one, we don’t want to lose another one.”

Bankerd moved to Cambridge in 1963, she says, and began to haunt used bookstores, searching for architectural and cooking books.

She says she was drawn to the Starr Book Shop for its quirkiness and “hickledy-pickledy” quality.

“You find books that are in poor condition that you can find a place for in your library, books you didn’t even know you needed until you found them there,” Bankerd says. “There’s a lot of happenstance, a lot of discovery.”

And the store simply attracted a strange assortment of characters, she says.

She says she remembers one old woman who would stand in the corner of the bookstore holding a bird.

“There was a sense that people were taken in because they liked books,” Bankerd says.

Today, the shelves are organized into sections from the more traditional philosophy to Judaica.

A critical analysis of William Faulkners Requiem for a Nun sits a few shelves away from a tattered cookbook.

Piles of books line the floor and a small television in the corner of the front desk, near a pair of tap shoes and a shriveled eggplant, plays the afternoon news.

“It was a place people met. You see neighbors, it becomes a community center,” Bankerd says. “This casual contact is very important. It makes a stronger community.”

But Chapman says Bankerd’s efforts would be better spent looking for another space within the Square.

“I would love to see him relocate somewhere else in the Square that’s a more appropriate location,” Chapman says.

He says the Lampoon has been trying to push the Starr to relocate for more than 10 years.

Each time, “[Starr] would say ‘Don’t do this because I’ve been here a long time,’” Chapman says. “So we always put it off.”

But with the new millennium and preparations for their 125th anniversary last March, Chapman says the Lampoon decided it was time to reclaim the bookstore’s space in the castle.

“We saw some obvious problems with the physical plan of the building that we’d overlooked,” he says.

After approaching Starr, Chapman says the Lampoon decided to give the store two years without rent plus $5,000 for moving and $5,000 to put toward opening a new location, with the lease running out this July.

“Thats about $40,000 of the Lampoon’s money. Its as much as we could do,” he says. “Our goal is to publish a magazine, not to give subsidies to an unrelated business.”

But Starr, who declined to speak to The Crimson for nearly two months about his store’s situation, remains hesistant to discuss the deal.

“We wanted to stay. The deal they gave us is that we get two years rent-free,” he says. “We still have to pay the taxes on the building.”

—Staff writer Daniela J. Lamas can be reached at lamas@fas.harvard.edu.

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