Affordable Literature

MiMi Yeh

Except for being bent over for textbooks, I haven’t paid full price for any book in a long time. No, I don’t steal them. I find them secondhand, sometimes for only a fourth of what people normally pay for a book that’s been on the shelves a month. I found myself in Barnes & Noble recently, looking through the latest in their mystery section when I was struck by just how much these buyers were paying. It seems ludicrous when there are more bookstores per square mile in Cambridge than any other place around.

Davis Square offers the likes of McIntyre and Moore, which has a fairly extensive collection of the obscure. Don’t expect to find the likes of John Grisham or Sidney Sheldon; the patrons here are evidently held to a higher standard. Fiction is not a priority in this store.

In trendy Harvard Square, one can still find a good deal in the basements of both the Harvard Co-Op and the Harvard Bookstore. However, don’t expect to get much back from the latter if you’re looking to unload books that have sat in a dusty corner for a long time. They only take books from 11am-4pm Tuesday through Saturday. Right down the street from Harvard Bookstore is a hole in the wall called the Grolier Poetry Shop. Here, one can find the likes of Wordsworth, Shakespeare, and Dobyns; the greater and the lesser existing side-by-side.

For those interested in the history of written word, James and Devon Gray Books Before 1700 gives one a good feel for just what some of the first printed matter looked like. This is not for the casual collector; with the amount of serious restoration that takes place, most of these are out of the price range of collectors of low-end fine books.

If it takes too much time to make the trek across the Charles, there’s the newly renovated Avenue Victor Hugo, located across from the Virgin Megastore on fashionable Newbury Street. They recently moved half a block down from their old location because rents have skyrocketed in the last few years. Their reopening hinged on selling enough of their huge stock to cover rent at their new place and, lo and behold, their faithful patrons came through for them and cleaned them out.

The Brattle Bookshop, located at 9 West Street, close to the Park Street T stop, is the oldest bookstore in America. Near Fajitas and ‘Ritas, this gem has racks and racks of books for $1, $3, and $5 just waiting to find a new home. Besides the usual offering of secondhand books, they are also willing to take used books off your hands when you tire of them. If you’re a regular customer, you may be able to make a deal when buying large amounts of books.

I enjoy these places not only for what they have to offer in the way of decent literature without the ridiculous prices, but also because you never know what you may find. Once I found a history of snakes in art, which makes for an interesting addition to any coffee table. A friend of mine found a love letter written entirely in French in a book of poetry she happened to pick up. Another found a turn-of-the-century invitation to a graduation at an all-boys’ school in Massachusetts.

You don’t need to visit giants like Waldenbooks or Borders to find a good selection, and if you know where to look you can get books cheap without for the paperback version to come out. This can also be a good way to get textbooks. Some of these bookstores have a wide variety of books one might need for a class. They won’t buy them back, but it beats paying campus bookstore prices. It takes a bit more effort, but it’s worth it if you spend as much on textbooks as some do. Happy hunting!