Awhile ago, a colleague told me that he: “Grew up in a law firm.” Which upon reflection was I thought, one of the saddest things anyone’s really ever said to me. The phrase still rattles in my brain and modified remains with me, because if I were to borrow and tweak the expression, into how I “grew up” in a bookstore, it was at the Barnes & Noble on Washington Street in Boston.
Downtown Crossing is a shopping district over the last decade or so, going through a transition into a full city neighborhood. But during my youth, when you said you were going “into town,” that meant the city (Boston), and State Street (formerly King St.), into Washington Street leading into Downtown Crossing, the intersections of Summer and Winter Streets up to Tremont Street.
First ventured into the city with my junior high school friends, we as early teenagers, left the safe confines of Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market, which back in the 1980’s was still diverse as part of an urban development, was a growing tourist destination and slowly transforming into a gentrified mall, although there were still small boutiques and vendors which were different, often local and interesting.
Had to walk quite a few blocks away to find Downtown Crossing, full of shoe stores, clothing stores (local and national chains), and our two (2) main department stores, Filene’s (the original location of the popular, discount Filene’s Basement) and Jordan Marsh. Nearby was also Lauriet’s a local, beloved bookstore, but I didn’t discover it until my 20’s (and saving it for another post).
Barnes & Nobles (B&N) was located a few doors down from Strawberries a music store chain, which was usually our primary destination. In those days, the early-to mid 1980’s you had to check your bags. Clearly I remember checking our bags and things at Strawberries, (and the scowls of whoever had to work the security desk in their bright red vests) but not at B&N.
Vast with a ground floor filled with tables piled with books. Years later I would find and get to know, the well-worn rhythms and patterns of book promotions — books being set up to lead you back to others, and books being discounted and then cleared away. Back then — not so much. Just was an immense maze — novels, poetry and authors that I would browse in wonder.
My best memory of the main floor is crowded, they had a large amount of floor space walled off for the classical music section which had a security doorway. There was also a large information desk added years later. Once, I went to pick up my friend Clive’s book I pre-ordered at the desk, and later another colleague told me he stopped by to pick up a book. And they gave him Clive’s in error, which was kind of a joke because our mail was often mixed up at reception too. But he brought Clive’s book back to the desk and alerted them, and I was able to pick it up later.
There was a large escalator that lead you up to the second floor which was non-fiction. Here I’m pretty sure, is one location where I purchased all kinds of college/university study guides for the required U.S. testing, the SATs, and the GRE’s. Later on, as a 20-something trying to find work post university and deciding about graduate studies, I remember often being in a bewildered slash overwhelmed daze, flipping through the popular “For Dummies” guides with their bright yellow covers.
For years, spent a lot of time browsing the discount tables by the escalators. Honestly probably was my favorite part of the store. Even after a large Border’s opened a few blocks away at the corner of Washington and School Streets — B&N continued to be busy in an old school way — it wasn’t as tricked out as the newer B&N Superstores out in the suburbs. There was no cafe and oddly have no memories of attending any author readings there.
For a short time, during the late 90’s into the 00’s — in Downtown Crossing there were two (2) large chains B&N and Border’s, which made gift/book shopping easy. To paraphrase, Nora Ephron in her film You’ve Got Mail, if one bookstore didn’t have it (the book you were looking for), the other probably did. And I do recall searching for and purchasing many children’s books for gifts at this B&N for younger cousins and children of friends — although I cannot exactly recall if the children’s department, was originally located on the main floor and then moved upstairs or not, but I think it was moved at some point.
Something had to give I suppose, with the advent e-readers and rising rents both contributed to the collapse of the mega chain bookstores in the US. In 2007 and 2008, I took a dance classes and a rotating schedule, and met a Harry Potter loving reader/bookseller that worked in the Downtown Crossing B&N. Eventually she told me of the stores’ struggles and very sadly it closed within the year or so. And I was worried about her job but she was transferred to a newer outlet/superstore in the Prudential Center complex, a mall in the Copley Square area of Boston.
The former B&N storefront still remains empty to this day. My dream is they will re-open and bring a bookstore back to Downtown Crossing.