Tired yellow tufts of eyebrow spray out over wire-rimmed glasses. Ken A. O’Brien is sitting where he always sits, on the stoop in front of the Harvard Shirt Shop, lifting a cigarette to his lips. The cardboard sign in front of him reads, “Please help with any change toward life expenses for my wife, dog, and cat or even just to help keep the free books going! Thanks for reading, Ken.”
For the past five and a half years, Ken has been running the $2 Bookstore in front of 1324 Mass. Ave. The bookstore has been somewhat of a Harvard Square staple, attracting students, residents, and tourists alike because of its low prices and perhaps more importantly, its quirky charm.
“People always come up to me and say they found a book here that they had always been looking for,” Ken says. Many of the texts are science fiction. One box holds travel guides to places like Dubai. There is an art book here and there. One was published in 1920 and is titled “Select Extracts Illustrating Sports and Pastimes in the Middle Ages.”
However, as of a few weeks ago, the bookstore has been shut down. The books are still there, and so is Ken. He’s just giving them away now for free: five books per person per day, donations welcome but certainly not required. Although Ken has run into legal problems with his bookstore in the past, this change has nothing to do with the City of Cambridge. Rather, it’s the latest component of a lifestyle transformation. “I refuse to allow any kind of pressure of the day,” Ken says. He takes a sip of coffee from Au Bon Pain (Morning Blend, 8 sugars, no milk).
Managing a business is stressful—there are schedules to be kept, transactions to be managed, and workers to be hired. All of this takes away from time Ken would otherwise be spending with his family: his cat, dog, and wife, Frenchie. And, Ken being a self-described “very successful bum on the corner,” the lost revenue isn’t too much of a concern.
Ken is very upfront about himself. He has four vices: caffeine, nicotine, THC, and white sugar. He is 58 in chronological years, although he also counts his age in terms of the number of lifetimes he’s lived, the people he’s met, and the times he should have died. He was born at 11 Athens St., just off Harvard’s campus, and in school he was one of those kids. The ones who put tacks on teachers’ chairs (the teacher actually sat on it) and goof off in all the easy classes. Ken’s eyes crinkle up behind his foggy eyeglasses, and he taps a dirty finger against his cardboard box of cigarettes.
Since school he’s been here (in Cambridge), and there (around the country). “I spent close to 40 years hitchhiking,” Ken recalls. “That was my school for what I have now.”
For the time being, he is content with staying put. As of three weeks ago, Ken and his wife, who both used to live under the blue tarp behind the bookstand, are no longer homeless. The couple is renting a room in Lexington, and Frenchie made lasagna for dinner the other night. This—his home, his family—is more than enough. “I can sit here and travel through other people’s eyes,” explains Ken as he traces the movement of passersby. “There’s enough empathy there.”
A man in a worn black jacket and crimson hoodie drops two dollar bills into Ken’s Tupperware container. Ken reaches forward and slips them into the pocket of his ash-stained blue sweatshirt. In the background, a few kids in Oxfords and loafers wander out of the Porcellian Club, backpacks slung over their shoulders.
When Ken was starting out, he bought 500 books a week from a friend, at 50 cents a piece. He wasn’t picky about titles, although many fell into the science fiction or fantasy genres, Ken’s personal favorites. The early days were marked by conflicts with police, the City of Cambridge, and the Harvard Square Business Association.
Ken was arrested twice after establishing his bookstore on Mass. Ave. However, after 85 days, 9 judges, and 3 cases, a judge ruled that there was “no probable cause for arrest conducting constitutionally protected activities.” After this incident, Ken bought a permit for 50 cents per annum from the City Solicitor that would allow him to legally set up shop. Cambridge police never bothered him again.
By ceasing to sell his books, Ken is leaving behind the world of legal technicalities. “I tried to be a citizen and, collectively, the world didn’t want me to be. They preferred me as a bum on the corner,” Ken says. And that was alright with him.
The bookstore’s legacies include the 30,000 books Ken now has in storage. He hopes that what is beginning as a free giveaway will develop into Ken’s Free Book Exchange, where readers donate a volume or two in exchange for titles they are interested in reading.
“It’s not quite like Solomon giving away all of his things and getting wealthy. But it’s almost like that.” He chuckles—a throaty, hacking kind of thing—and takes a drag on his cigarette. “The free books are just so strange. I end up getting what I want, but it doesn’t always come in the form of money.”
Although there is no fixed schedule, Ken has a Facebook and announces each morning around 8 a.m. whether he’ll be opening. Ken grinds the butt of his cigarette into the street as he says, “I can do the best for myself, my family, and, it would seem, the world this way.”