Summertime, and I spend my days working in a museum located in downtown Boston. Over the months, I learn how to count a cash drawer, teach Italians the meaning of a state sales tax, and struggle with how exactly to break the news that the Old Corner Bookstore is no more.
“Well?” The older couple across the counter brandish their map and press on, looking expectantly at first me and then my manager, to whom I have turned for help.
My manager grimaces. “You’re not going to like the answer.”
“Think libraries are boring? Proper Bostonians would beg to differ. Once renowned as a hotbed of writers, the city remains a haven for readers. The continuing popularity of these institutions is a case in point.” The Fodor’s travel guide has nothing else to say about the city’s literary past.
Boston. Once this was the Athens of America, the Hub of the Universe; no longer. Anne Bradstreet, America’s first poet, walked these streets, as did Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Elizabeth Bishop, Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton. Most of Infinite Jest is set in Boston. The Atlantic was founded in this city. e. e. cummings is buried here.
But for all these names, all these movements, all this history, Boston has, like other American cities in the new millennium, faded from literary prominence. On its face, this seems an exaggeration; there are journals, there are bookstores, there are eager young writers spilling forth from all the schools that litter the city. This is the digital age, after all; weren’t these kinds of physical borders supposed to dissolve — wasn’t the Internet supposed to create connections previously impossible in the days of pen, ink, and paper? But I am a child of the digital, and let me tell you this: sometimes it feels as though every young writer I know is in the process of moving down to Brooklyn.
And this bothers me. — Why?
On certain fall days in Boston the air veers sharp, humming like a too-charged cell phone, and I understand why they hung witches here. The cliché of New England and the absolute rule of New England is its weather, and this is the season in which our ears prick, our senses grow fearful; soon, the trees will wither.
The literature of Massachusetts seems to reflect this fear. It is a literature of insanity, of extreme emotion; “Boston!” the teenage lunatics of Susannah Kaysen’s Girl, Interrupted cry, in between bouts of failed suicide attempts, “Boston! You could jump out at a red light and split.” In the old Ritz-Carlton, Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath used to meet after poetry workshops to down martinis and discuss their respective death wishes. And the Old Corner Bookstore? — Built in 1712, the building itself was erected to replace the ruins of Anne Hutchinson’s home, that Puritan woman cast out of Boston for talking to God.
Today, the Old Corner Bookstore sits, as its name implies, on the corner of Washington and School Streets, five minutes from Downtown Crossing and perhaps another 10 from the Common. It is a squat building, many windowed, and on its left side hangs a brief green sign.
“Timothy Crease built this structure as his apothecary and residence shortly after the great fire of 1711 destroyed Anne Hutchinson’s house on this site,” reads the sign. “Timothy Carter opened the Old Corner Bookstore here in 1829. Between 1845 and 1865, the booksellers Ticknor and Fields established the building’s lasting literary significance as the publishers of Hawthorne, Longfellow, Stowe, Emerson, Thoreau, and other prominent American and British authors, who often gathered here…In 1960, civic leaders raised money and established Historical Boston Incorporated to acquire and preserve this site.”
Now, this sign is the last vestige of the bookstore’s past. Though tourist maps still mark it as a landmark, today the Old Corner Bookstore is no more. Today, the Old Corner Bookstore has been replaced by a Chipotle.
October. Witch season in New England. I visit the Chipotle out of curiosity. At 11:30 in the morning it is empty, save for its workers, and inside it is all red walls, steel counters, and the kind of eco-platitudes now necessary to convince office employees to buy fast food. Vats of lettuce sit next to vats of salsa stand next to vats of sour cream.
I speak with Jessica, the store’s assistant manager, who has worked at Chipotle for over two years. I ask her if people come in asking for the Old Corner Bookstore. “All the time,” she says, nodding. “At least a couple times a month. There are a lot of pamphlets on it. Some people are disappointed but most move on.”
On the wall behind her, a sign informs me that this is “food with integrity.” A dozen meat strips sizzle on the open stove; Chipotle’s chicken, boasts another sign, “is raised without antibiotics and fed a diet free of animal by-products.” But I cannot tell what animal is being cooked.
“Personally, I think it’s slightly sad how easy it was to get,” Jessica says, referring to the building. She brightens. “But everyone at Chipotle was really excited to get this spot because of the history, the chance to be a part of Boston’s history. This is the oldest retail location in Boston.”
Lunchtime approaches. Soon the restaurant will be filled, Jessica assures me, and I leave, not wanting to get in the way. Outside the air is brisk. The sun is bright. I wouldn’t say no to one of Plath’s martinis.
The oldest retail location in Boston. Technically, this is true.
In the weeks that follow my Chipotle visit I work, intern, and read the dozen or so New York-based but not New York-centric blogs, journals, and papers that stand alongside more local offerings in my RSS feed. I try to write this essay. I tell myself that it is no mistake that I am writing this on the heels of the announced Penguin-Random House merger; I consult the books that crowd my shelves and feel a small, withered sense of triumph whenever the copyright page points to a New York publishing house. I attempt to draw parallels between U.S. politics and to argue against monopolies and to say something pat about the digital. The results are unconvincing.
November comes, and so too does that famous New England cold. When I exit the warmth of the red line I brace myself against Central Square’s wind, and the sidewalk’s bricks are red and the buildings are brick-laced and even when I close my eyes the lids remain red, always red: inescapable. I open them.
I do not want to be a cliché. I think of this on the walk home, dreading my return to this essay, and immediately feel annoyed with myself. But to be 22 and a writer and a liberal arts graduate, on top of it, seems in this day and age to bring with it a certain stigma, a whiff of that dreaded scarlet letter: hipster. Lena Dunham and Thought Catalog and that New York Times article on irony: to distance myself from this epithet, this implicit accusation of frivolity, I latched onto a city that once surpassed New York: Boston, where “history sticks / like a fishbone in the city’s throat,” to misquote Robert Lowell.
“You do of course realise that your entire blog sounds like you are a hipster desperately trying to be so cool as to not to appear to be one, right?” an anonymous commenter once wrote on my blog. I tried to shake it off; I tried to laugh. Why get upset over something on the Internet, right? But in the game of authenticity that has consumed my particular subset of 20-somethings, even the act of writing turns self-conscious, a method of avoiding vulnerability. What Was the Hipster? asked n + 1 two years ago; the hipster was me.
The Old Corner Bookstore is no more. Sometimes I read old writing of mine and wonder what I was trying to hide. At the same time, I do, in fact, find myself agreeing with The New York Times, as late in the game as that article appeared. There is a glibness to so much of the writing of my generation; an artificial exposure of the self. No matter how many confessional blog posts or top 10 lists concerning what it’s like to be a Millennial I read, I still feel no closer to the writer. Between us, there is always a screen.
“God is in your typewriter,” a priest once begged a despondent Anne Sexton. Perhaps it is time to listen.
Image courtesy of the author.