Brattle Book Shop: interview

I think ink might be running through Ken Gloss’ veins for he has lived a life surrounded by books — a life I think any book lover would be envious of. The Brattle Book Shop in Boston is the US’ oldest and largest bookstores. It’s been in the hands of the Gloss family since 1949, and Ken has been at the helm of the store for 41 years.

Jealous yet? I am. While reading up about the store, one thing struck me — perhaps it’s the book nerd/bias running through me — but it seems to be a store you could easily get lost in. Two floors of general and used books and one of antiquarian titles … imagine what you could find in such a store? Or for that matter outside the store.


What is your earliest memory of the store?

I went into the shop when I was 5 years old. What I remember most is the dusty old room filled to the ceiling with dusty old books and dusty old men looking at them.

I remember taking the T (the Boston MBTA subway system) from the Dorchester section of Boston to the Downtown section of Boston by myself. Things were different then.

Tell us a little about the community the store is now in?

The bookshop is now on West Street in Downtown Boston.  The Boston Common is at the end of the street. The Massachusetts State House is just across the street from there. Washington Street is at the other end with the main shopping and theater district around the corner.  Two colleges have dorms on West Street and/or on the next block. There are hotels, residences, high end and fast food restaurants and retail shops. On West Street there are 3 restaurants, a cosmetic school, language school, headquarters of the Massachusetts Bar Association (lawyer’s association), Headquarters of the SEIU (labor unions), a convent, Bridge Over Troubled Waters, headquarters for homeless teenagers that provides health care and day sheltering. And us. It is a diverse area.

brattle book shop 3Could you describe the store (to someone across the world) and the books in five words or less?

Large general antiquarian bookshop.

What has been some of the most unusual books you’ve had and requests you’ve fielded from customers?

We had one customer come in from with a book from out bargain stands outside. He was so excited, saying that he had been looking for this book for many years. The title of the book was “Coconuts and Constipation”.

We have a customer who eats pages from the bible. We have never asked her why.

You’ve been at the helm of the store for 41 years – at a time when independents are getting few and far in-between, and technology has changed things – how has the store endured?

We have endured because while bookselling is fun and fascinating, it is a business. We own our building and the lot next door. This has been the key to survival as we are not victim to rising rents often resulting from neighborhood gentrification.

How have things changed in the store, in readers and requests in all your time at the store? Has any change surprised you?

The biggest surprise would be if nothing changed  The major changes I have seen have been results of technology. ken gloss brattle bookstoreBooks bought purely for reference and information have almost become necessary, as that information is mostly readily available online. Nobody buys an encyclopedia and rare a dictionary any longer.

The interment makes most books easy to find. What was once considered rare was just hard to find. With book site search engines you can pretty much find what you’re looking for rather easily. As a result, many prices have leveled and/or dropped dramatically. What the internet does not do is let you find something serendipitous…that book that you didn’t know you wanted or even existed until you saw it in the shop.

Ebooks are popular but you do not really own them. You cannot loan them, you cannot sell them. If the service from which you bought them goes out, you cannot access them. With ebooks there are no used books. That may be what impacts used bookshops in the future.

I was intrigued by the decorating section of the website – how did that come about? What are the sorts of requests you get in regards to this section?

Decoration with books is common.  Film sets, advertising, stage productions, model homes, restaurants and bars use our services.  Also, people who want their homes to have a particular look; scholarly, color, theme, etc.  We once had an order for 6,000 red books (we had a gradient scale of what was considered red) from a department store’s 60 locations. They need 100 books in each of their stores to tie into a red dress theme. Decorating with books can run anywhere from $1 per book to thousands of dollars, depending upon how selective the client is. We have also rented books to film sets, as they need them only for a short time.

Is there any title/author/selection of books you’ve always regretted missing out on in your search for more books?

There is always regret about the one that got away, but I know there will always be something else.

One particular instance is a J.D.Salinger letter that was offered.  Salinger was writing to a friend and reminiscing about having his house built in New Hampshire (not far from Boston).  He relates that a group of students worked on the foundation. He then goes on to say one of those students turned out to be a pretty good baseball player named Carlton Fisk. Fast forward — Fisk is a Baseball Hall of Fame inductee and one of the most beloved players in Boston Red Sox history. I am a huge Red Sox fan but was not able to negotiate the purchase.

For more on the store, check out their site, Twitter and Facebook. And in case you’re wondering where you’ve seen Ken (above) before? He’s a regular on Antiques Roadshow and New England Cable News!

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