Independent Bookstores: Commonwealth Books, Boston

Keep your eyes peeled as you come up Washington Street. As you approach the Chipotle on School Street, look the other way. Because that Chipotle used to be the store that published and sold Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, and now it’s a burrito factory.

But also because Commonwealth Books is across the street and it’s easy to miss.

Head down the stairs and go through the front door. Then hang a quick right and go through the other front door. Down a couple more stairs. The sales lady will not greet you; she may not even look up from her own book. But don’t worry about it, she’ll be happy to help when you have a question. Head past the desk and dive into a maze of shelves and the smell of old books overflowing from those shelves.

And it truly is a maze. The shelves seem to spiral around the store, and you may not be sure if the front door is to your left or right, but that won’t really matter.  Though the shelves are organized by category and the books are more-or-less lined up alphabetically, it’s a loose interpretation of the alphabet, and there are piles on the floor, and books stuck horizontally into shelves that have run out of space.

Browsing here is truly a treasure hunt. All the books are used, many are vintage. Some are first editions, some are autographed. One corner of the maze houses an impressive collection of vintage and reproduction prints from the 18th and 19th century, sometimes older.

If you’re in a rush or on a mission, this may not be the store for you. But when you find yourself with a free afternoon (or a paper you’d rather not write just yet), wander in and get lost for awhile.


P.S. Head to BookRiot for a fun read on the ideal bookstore. What would yours look like?