During the gusts of wind and torrents of rain ripping through the northeast last week, the tarp on the wall outside of Brattle Book Shop ripped. It was a mural that had images of famous writers on it—such as Toni Morrison, William Butler Yeats, and Franz Kafka—and signaled to passersby what was inside the unassuming brick building that has been inhabited by thousands of books since the 1960s.
Inside, customers continued to browse through the three floors of shelves, and employees chatted with people as they came in. The shop seemed unfazed by the loss—even though the tarp had been up for more than 30 years—probably because nothing has been able to shake its business. With the rise of national booksellers and Amazon, Brattle has remained a fixture not only in Boston but in the country. People call from all over asking for an appraisal for a book, or two, or a thousand.
Owner Kenneth Gloss and his wife, Joyce Kosofsky, are regulars on Antiques Roadshow, traveling around the country to tell people the worth of their pages. Gloss inherited the shop from his father, George, who bought it in 1949. It was founded in 1825 and was close to going out of business when George took over. He was forced to relocate from Brattle Street in 1969 when City Hall was being constructed, and the shop has been on West Street since.
In 2017, Gloss started a podcast—two weeks ago he posted his 44th episode. The Brattlecast is co-hosted by Jordan Rich and has covered topics from the history of the shop to the year 1968 to Map Quest. In a history of the Brattle Book Shop, written on a pamphlet kept behind the front desk, Gloss is described as being quieter and calmer than his father.
While his father rode in a car and tossed books out the windows to pedestrians when he moved from Brattle Street to West Street, the younger Gloss is more comfortable speaking through Apple Podcasts and Google Play, where you can find Brattlecast.
The neighborhood that Brattle is in now, situated between Boston Common and Downtown Crossing, was referred to as The Combat Zone when the shop moved in. It had a reputation for prostitution and drugs and was occupied by strip clubs, X-rated movie theaters, and adult bookstores. One day, a man, who was high at the time, fell down the stairs of Brattle’s basement. After that, they decided to put an alarm on the door to prevent any more injuries and make sure the staff was safe.
Today, the area is home to reputable theatres and college students, and the more notable alarm system in Brattle is the one that arms its third floor, where the rare books are housed. People spend thousands of dollars at Brattle if they can find the one book they’ve been looking for.
“I don’t think a book is really expensive, until it’s like, a year’s worth of tuition or a down payment for a house,” said Nicole S. Reiss, manager for Brattle Book Shops.
Reiss graduated from Boston University 20 years ago and was looking for what to do next. She was deciding between being a grant writer and a bookseller at Brattle, and went with the latter because she thought it would be more interesting. She enjoys the research that goes into book buying and selling, and the travel that sometimes accompanies the work. Her favorite find is a pamphlet on traveling out to California for the Gold Rush.
“It was very small and unassuming and it had a map in it,” Reiss said. “And it was a really, really, really expensive book.”
Last month, she traveled to Pennsylvania to look at a collection. The collection didn’t end up being something Brattle would be interested in, but the trip was worth, she said. Another colleague recently made a purchase for 5,000 books—people call Brattle Book Shop because they can handle that shipment volume unlike other shops, Reiss said.
Down three flights from the rare books and outside to the left is a patch of pavement that is used for outdoor bookselling in the good weather. Rows of $1, $2, and $3 books on carts with wheels fill the space between Brattle and the building next door, where patrons can spend hours browsing the secondhand collections. Sections like that are great for students who are looking for something, say a copy of Hamlet, for class, Reiss said. Instead of spending $35 to order it online, they can come in and get it for less than their coffee costs.
Sometimes, Brattle finds these books nestled among more expensive treasures. When they go to appraise a collection, they might find that they really only want 10 out of the 300 books, but they might buy the rest to put in their outdoor collection. Regardless of what kind of customer you are—shopping in the $1 to $15 range or the $10,000 to $150,000 range, you’re treated the same, Reiss said.
“It’s a community where people talk to strangers and talk about books and, and it’s pleasant, and it’s cozy,” Reiss said. “And there’s always something interesting coming in.”
Some people who visit the shop used to come in as children with their parents, or browse every lunch hour, or are in the area for a medical treatment once a week and use it as a treat afterward. The shop is an institution in the city, and its reputation helps carry its books into the homes and onto the shelves of people who hear of it.
“We have regulars who call in sick,” she said with a smile.
Images by Colleen Martin / Heights Editor