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Marshall Smith penned these words — still our guiding mantra — as the slogan for his March 1961 opening of Paperback Booksmith on Arlington Street across from the Public Gardens in downtown Boston. It was a great moment for browsing.
Since the 1940s, publishers had begun bringing out paperback editions of “serious” books: literary fiction, science, philosophy, politics and more. Marshall saw these inexpensive, easily portable editions as opening up the world of great literature to everyday people. He was at the forefront of what Publisher’s Weekly called “the paperback revolution.”
Marshall quit his job on Wall Street to open the first Paperback Booksmith. And so began a journey of creativity and exploration, challenges and adaptations, dedication and passion that led to Brookline Booksmith as you know it today.
As a testament to our community’s response to all Marshall built, we are honored to have received Publishers Weekly’s Bookstore of the Year Award in 1998 and been selected in recent decades by Boston Magazine as Boston’s Best Bookstore twelve times, Best Literary and Reading series four times, and Best Gift Shop most recently in 2022.
Bookselling in the ‘60s
Marshall and Judy opened a second Paperback Booksmith in October 1961, at 271 Harvard Street in the heart of busy Coolidge Corner. His friend Evelyn Vigo signed on as manager.
Paperback Booksmith was one of the first stores to display books by genre and category rather than by publisher and to organize sections alphabetically by author, encouraging customers to take their time finding that perfect book — a creative choice that over time spread across the industry.
By 1963, the chain had grown and the Coolidge Corner location, in need of significantly more display space, moved to our current 279 Harvard Street location. This expansion also included an Art Gallery, that opened with one of New England's largest exhibits of original prints, including lithographs, woodcuts and etchings.
When the store added hardcovers, the name was shortened to “Booksmith.” But the work was about much more than selling books. As Marshall said,
"Over the decades the Booksmith was filled with drama, outrage, sadness, excitement and great changes in the world of civilizations: the Civil Rights Movement; the assassination of President John F. Kennedy; the Black Panthers; the Hippy upheaval; the Vietnam War, assassinations of MLK, RFK; the Watergate Scandal and more . . . And that's just the first decade. We reflected on all of that. We were always socially active, eager to learn and change."
Marshall often went to court to defend creative freedoms and the right to sell banned books. He was a bookseller known to take on civic responsibilities like publishing Judge Garrity's decision to desegregate the Boston schools. His efforts helped establish Booksmith as a social enterprise and major cultural influence in the Town of Brookline and Greater Boston.
Over the next decades, Booksmith grew to a total of 75 stores along the East Coast and the Smith brand expanded into other businesses, including Musicsmith, Videosmith, Learningsmith and Cybersmith. Marshall's underlying philosophy for all the stores was grounded in their way of giving back to society—helping people learn and gain access to information in new and unique ways.
Videosmith provided access to video well before videotapes and VHS were mass-market items. You may remember it flourishing in the space now occupied by our Used Book Cellar and later at 283 Harvard Street. It was the ideal place to browse obscure classics, independent films and Hollywood hits. It lasted into the arrival of the streaming era, in the early 2000s.
Cybersmith, one of the world’s first cyber cafés, opened in 1995 to lines around the corner. Co-founded by Marshall and his son Jed, it featured emerging multimedia technology including internet browsing, video game stations, virtual reality, software and an online cafe, all paid for with the then-novel swipe of a card. With its lively, entertaining atmosphere, Improper Bostonian quickly selected it as "the best place for a first date."
Over the 1980s, the Booksmith chain discontinued, but our Harvard Street Booksmith continued to thrive, led by a dedicated team and supported by our outstanding community and manager, Dana Brigham.
In 1992, Booksmith launched our award-winning Writers & Readers events series, hosting author readings, book signings, conversations and panels in the store and at the Coolidge Corner Theater nearly every day of the week. Community engagement flourished.
But “The Triumvirate,” as Marshall, Dana and Evelyn (now controller), were affectionately known, would navigate some tumultuous times.
Facing down the big box stores and online bookselling
The early ‘90s found independent bookstores at their high-water mark: in 1995 there were more indies than ever before. But the arrival of chains like Barnes & Noble and Borders and the rise of online bookselling dramatically changed the landscape. In 1993, a large B&N opened right down the street from us, upstairs from Zaftig’s restaurant.
In spite of all this, in 1998 Publishers Weekly named Booksmith “Bookseller of the Year,” and we enjoyed a reputation as one of the best indies in the region.
Between 2000 and 2009, the number of indie bookstores plummeted. But in 2008, it was the B&N a few blocks away that declined to renew their lease. As Dana said,
“It’s very rare to find a situation where the big chain ends up leaving an area and the independent shop stays. We’re very lucky to be here, and we know that it is entirely through the support of the Brookline and Greater Boston literary community that we remain. The battle between monopolized ‘bookselling’ enterprises like Amazon and independent bookstores is by no means won, but we’re grateful to serve our community and treat our customers and workers with respect.”
Bountiful gifts, gently used books and a magical space.
Some eternal favorites have always helped us grow.
Giftsmith — a model of careful curation and beautiful displays — has always had a major role in complementing our book offerings and delighting our customers with housewares, specialty foods, jewelry, clothing items and more. Kerri Budryk, who has been head gift-buyer since 2005, has continued to grow Giftsmith’s offerings as well as its footprint.
Booksmith’s Used Book Cellar
Since 2004, Booksmith’s Used Book Cellar has been an iconic part of Boston’s literary scene — a space to browse everything from new hardcovers to the very same paperbacks Booksmith sold in the early ‘60s. Its selection is lovingly curated by a team still led by its original manager, Carl Annarummo.
Our beloved children’s book section continues to blossom, hosting regular story times and maintaining our joyous role as a family-friendly home for young readers. Our children’s booksellers are dedicated specialists and leaders in their field, with degrees from kids’ literary programs. With a fanciful tree sculpture arching over the whimsical seating area, we offer a magical spot for kids and their grown-ups.
Amplifying voices, making connections
Over the decades, our event series has flourished by bringing hundreds of authors and community events every year to both our vibrant in-store event space and beautiful offsite theaters, libraries and venues. As we've grown, we've built a series featuring prestigious authors from many genres and backgrounds that reflects the values, variety and diversity of our store and customers. We welcome the best possible events to provide an experience that brings joy and knowledge to readers and community members, of all ages and experiences.
Following the 2016 presidential election and the cultural upheavals that followed, book buyer Shuchi Saraswat launched our Transnational Literature Series. The Series focuses on works in translation and writing about migration, displacement and exile. It contributes to our long-standing commitment to justice, solidarity and grassroots political change in the face of austerity and racist violence.
Amplifying under-represented voices, serving our wider community, reflecting the diverse population in our community and the world — and creating a safe space for all — has been part of our work since our founding.
Marshall, Evelyn and Dana retire, and Jed can see over the counter
In 2012, Marshall retired, writing to his staff that he was making the move . . .
"with a touch of sadness, lots of nostalgia, and a tremendous pride in what our hundreds of booksellers have accomplished over the past fifty-seven years and two months. . . . We were always socially active, eager to learn and change. . . . I believe technology is going to keep revolutionizing the way we live and learn. But I feel confident that with our new management team and an extraordinary group of booksellers . . . you will face up to those challenges and have a great time doing it."
It has indeed been a great time — as well as a time of great adaptation and change as online bookselling heated up. The Smith family and Booksmith staff held strong. Evelyn retired in 2014, and in 2018, Dana retired after 37 years of “a wonderful life.” Marshall and Dana stayed on as senior advisors to new co-managers and co-owners Lisa Gozashti and Peter Win. Lisa, now head of merchandising, started at Booksmith in 1999, and Peter, head of operations, had been on staff over many years and steadily since 2010. Alie Hess, head buyer filling the store with books since 2000, became a co-owner in 2022.
In 2018, Jed joined the board as chair and the new management team as president, bringing decades of experience as an entrepreneur, CEO and investor — as well as memories of bagging books during the holiday season when he was so young, he could barely see over the counter.
Judy, Dana and Tom Hallock, a former Booksmith manager, became board members. Caity Meaney Burrows signed on as mission director. And many long-time staff members, including Paul Theriault, Bmail author and bookseller since 1999; Russ Barker, school orders manager and bookseller since 1997; and Jon Vargosko, receiver since 1996, helped carry the torch.
Growing in the sunshine...
Our storefront keeps growing and bringing us sunshine (in more ways than one).
In 2020, we expanded into our next-door space previously inhabited by Videosmith and then Verizon, nearly doubling our already bountiful aisles and tables filled with books and gifts — and flooding the store with natural light.
A second expansion, in 2022, bought us into the adjacent space vacated by our neighbor Dependable Cleaners and inspired many store-wide enhancements: wider aisles, more than 5,000 additional titles, and architectural and design flourishes created to enhance your browsing experience. We grew to 12,500 square feet!
That same year, Giftsmith was named Boston Magazine’s Best Gift Shop for its “eclectic array of present-worthy goods without an ounce of the stuffiness or predictability.”
...and in the dark
The pandemic was devastating. We closed, we grieved, and miraculously our customers came through. The demand for good reading and online community intensified. We were able to maintain our 2020 expansion and enhance our website to serve our community of readers across the country and beyond. Our online events series hosted some outstanding guests from all over the world. And we started a membership program lovingly embraced by our wonderful, loyal customers.
“When the great pandemic of 2020 hit, Booksmith's revenues went to near zero. For many months our future was shaky, but [Marshall] was beaming with pride as the Brookline community stepped up; we were able to retain our staff and even expand.”
Since that time, our sales have increased steadily, and we’ve carried on as a leader among indies. It’s a beautiful place to be, and we have our customers to thank.
Our amazing community
The Booksmith is a community bookstore above all else, and it’s our privilege to work with and support dozens of local organizations every year. During the pandemic, to be true to our mission, it was essential for Booksmith to give back to the community. Thanks to our generous customers, we've facilitated impactful fundraisers for community anchors, such as the Brookline Food Bank, Brookline Center for Community Mental Health, Brookline Teen Center, and Brookline Senior Center as well as cause-based nonprofits like RIAN Immigrant Center, the Book Industry Charitable Foundation and Speak for the Trees, Boston. Annually, we allocate a budget for direct donations to local causes, projects and fundraisers, and sponsorship opportunities with events like the Mass Poetry Festival and Boston Roller Derby. We participate in local festivities, partner with schools and libraries, and collaborate on events with town committees and local nonprofits. We are also proud to be long-time underwriters of WBUR. We will always work to nurture, support and enhance our community, a community that has given us so much.
A great loss and a magnificent legacy
Marshall Smith passed away on Tuesday, May 10, 2022.
As his obituary says,
“Marshall was a sweetheart of a man and legendary retail entrepreneur; an advocate for civil liberties and creative spirit, adviser to political leaders, a striking intellectual and voracious reader.”
Four generations of Smiths worked at Booksmith during Marshall's lifetime and his entrepreneurial creations offered livelihood to thousands more.
And as Jed puts it,
“James Baldwin writes that we carry our history with us. It is a story, yes, but one that shapes and is shaped by us: our bodies, our buildings, our books, who we speak to, who we care for.
There is no doubt that Booksmith’s story is still being written every day. But its authors are certainly not only the Smith family, or the store’s hardworking staff. Bound up in each other as we all inevitably are, Brookline Booksmith is equally a product of the incredible people who have and will browse and shop here, whether once on a trip or every day for the past sixty years. It’s to you that we have always, and always will, belong.”
As Marshall said when he retired,
"I'll see you in the aisles."