In Person

The Old Corner Bookstore Is Now A Chipotle

By posted at 12:00 pm on January 4, 2013 19

570_chipotle

1.
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.”

2.
“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.

coverBoston. 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?

3.
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.

coverThe 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.

4.
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.

cover“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.





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19 Responses to “The Old Corner Bookstore Is Now A Chipotle”

  1. Matt
    at 1:26 pm on January 4, 2013

    I love this. This is brilliantly written and when I say this please understand I know exactly what you’re writing about. I used to walk by said Chipotle every day. Now it’s only occasionally. It’s fairly close to the Boloco where Edgar Allan Poe was born, and about a block or so from the Macy’s that boasts Emerson….

  2. Laura C
    at 2:11 pm on January 4, 2013

    And look at the sad, horrific mess Houghton Mifflin has made of itself to boot. (You do know MLA is in Boston right this minute, yes?) Great essay. Bring the literary back to Boston!

  3. Jill Gallagher
    at 2:17 pm on January 4, 2013

    Great essay! I grew up just south of Boston, and lived in the city for 4 years before moving to….Brooklyn. This really puts my feelings about the literary history and scene in Boston into words, and for that, I thank you. Good luck out there.

  4. THE OLD CORNER BOOKSTORE IS NOW A CHIPOTLE | RHIAN SASSEEN
    at 6:24 pm on January 4, 2013

    [...] READ MORE AT THE MILLIONS. [...]

  5. Rafael Pajaro
    at 11:11 pm on January 4, 2013

    Irony may confuse issues of tone and perspective, but its not frivolous nor does it disengaged from its material. Historically speaking, Irony is a strategic gesture that structures some of the more intelligent and involved criticism (e.g., Wilde, Crisp, Waugh et al) since the turn of (the last) century. Somehow irony has become shorthand for the fringe and the frivolous since the days of Warhol, and a semiotic hell for/a way to castigate ambitious ‘Millenials.’ Irony is a term, I find, most often misused by Gen-Xer’s and republicans.

  6. Brendan
    at 9:22 am on January 6, 2013

    My favorite Borders is a Babies ‘R Us now.

  7. Brendan
    at 9:26 am on January 6, 2013

    You do know that the writers moved to Brooklyn from Manhattan, right?

    Oh, kids. It’s kind of cute how she thinks Boston’s slide from prominence only started in the millennium her generation is named for.

  8. Francesco Martinelli
    at 11:17 am on January 6, 2013

    I am Italian. What is a Chipotle? Onion?

  9. LMD
    at 11:27 am on January 6, 2013

    Re: Brendan: Just because she’s arguing that a “slide from prominence” exists now doesn’t mean that she’s saying that “she thinks Boston’s slide from prominence only started in the millennium her generation is named for”. See: Slippery slope fallacy.

    It’s cute of you to assume so, but fallacious. Also the worst kind of jaded-cynic-y: “You think bad things are bad and you’re trying to find a way to change that? Well, things were bad in my day too! So that negates your view that bad things are bad!”

  10. Brendan
    at 3:16 pm on January 6, 2013

    Boston has, like other American cities in the new millennium, faded from literary prominence.

    Only one of us is putting words in people’s mouths.

  11. John Pepper
    at 6:17 am on January 7, 2013

    Historic Boston badly needed the funds only a national chain could reliably pay – well over $200K per year and escalating each year, The buildout costs were 7 figures.
    I know this because we (Boloco… Aka Boston Local Company ;) fought hard to wrestle that location from our 800-lb gorilla friends once we heard its fate was all but sealed. We lost.

    Yes, we too are guilty of being in business at the site of a historic landmark…where Poe’s original house stood on the edge of the Boston Common,, but hardly is our building that exact same building. Despite that, we opened a month before Poe’s 200th bday and on Jan 19, 2009 celebrated appropriately (free burritos? Poe would have surely approved!) Perhaps in a couple weeks we could do something special for his 204th.
    I will say I did enjoy this post very much. I still love the idea of a corner book store, despite having free wifi in all of our restaurants. Maybe there’s room for a resurgence of literary gathering spots in the future… Not sure what it might look like (or perhaps it already exists.. Thinking Cup?) but I know I’d frequent such a place as often as possible (with my Kindle of course ;)
    Happy New Year
    John Pepper
    CEO and cofounder, Boloco

  12. Christine
    at 7:11 am on January 7, 2013

    Should we really question choosing Chipotle over Chaucer or should the discussion be about choosing new media over brick and mortar. Changing times. Nostalgia is a wonderful thing when it makes us feel warm inside, these memories are cherished parts of the self. But life moves on with what makes dollars and sense. Would we feel better if instead of Chipotle Ye Old Curiosity Shoppe went in to the space selling Boston tchotchkes? Don’t mourn, but see your reflection and that of societies in our establishments and ponder the possibilities of what will next occupy Old Corner Bookstore. We can help to shape the future.

  13. J.D. Finch
    at 4:52 pm on January 7, 2013

    This all should point you in another direction — i.e. away from the arts/writing to do a sensible like becoming a restaurant manager or something. Meh.

    The Poe house in Baltimore is closing (or is already closed), Lowell Mass. treats Kerouac’s birthplace pretty much as a non-entity, Boston’s Avenue Victor Hugo is long-gone, etc., etc. People (in general; not us) aren’t reading and couldn’t give two shakes for writers and their histories. Except for the likes of Hemingway, well featured at various Sloppy Joe’s bars in Florida.

    But the Old Corner Bookstore, now a fast food restaurant? That’s got to be the most pathetic example of the trend.

    (This written in Brattleboro VT. With its connections to Kipling, Lovecraft, transcendentalists, etc., here one can safely be a sort of backwoods history-of-lit hipster — if the desire exists — and not feel at all bad about it.)

  14. Home « where are you when the sky falls?
    at 6:34 pm on January 7, 2013

    [...] The Old Corner Bookstore is Now a Chipotle [...]

  15. Zazen Day 4 – Focus « perfectcursive
    at 3:21 am on January 12, 2013

    [...] Best online thing I read today: The Old Corner Bookshop is Now a Chipotle by Rhian Sasseen / The Millions [...]

  16. morgan
    at 12:38 am on January 14, 2013

    Interesting piece. I lived in Cambridge (central sq) for nearly five years and in the end I just felt it was a creative dead end; an uninspiring cold place that seemed not only rooted, but stuck in its past. For a city that is slow to change, indeed even fearful (Cambridge once voted down a Renzo Piano-designed museum), to have a literary landmark turned into a Chipotle seems awful, but somehow appropriate – a punishment deserved. While the city has its plusses and upsides, for creative people I think it’s a tough sell. I’m a web designer, musician and photographer, and a lot of the people I knew with similar aspirations moved on to other places. NYC, SF, Portland. I’m in Los Angeles now and the level of creativity (at least in the visual and music fields) is intense and way beyond what I experienced in Boston.

  17. Sarah Roche-Mahdi
    at 6:18 pm on January 17, 2013

    I’m sorry, I do mourn the closing of venerable bookstores, but I found the treatment of this theme banal and the writing mediocre. What has happened to Smith College standards? And by the way, witches are hanged, not hung;please leave the use of exit as transitive verb to transport personnel., .

    Sarah in Cambridge

  18. SMD
    at 11:24 am on January 22, 2013

    You make me proud to be a Smithie. Still, I am living in this community surrounded by people who suffer from technologies advances. (for instance, all eyes are on iphones) I enjoy Chipotle, but I also enjoy books. An Old Corner Bookstore sounds better than a burrito in my mind. Yet, who is to judge the change of the city, the change of the time, the change of ourselves. We should question who we are but should we try to be the people we question? I still don’t know what a hipster is, and that’s what a hipster would want you to think. Great piece of writing, and may the Old Corner Bookstore rest in peace.

  19. Denise Price
    at 2:48 pm on February 17, 2013

    Loved this article! I, too, live in Central Square and am a transplant from Denver, years ago frequenting the original Chipotle location before they franchised

    For me, it is bitter sweet.. the Chipotle arrival that is. I, for one, feel grateful that someone was able to spend over $1m to create a re-use/re-purposing of a space that struggled for long term tenants and for a non-profit that needed the funding. The restoration (of sorts) for an architecture lover appealing. The ability to see the timbers that have been there since the building’s birth makes me so happy.

    I love Boston, so much so I engineered a Pop-Up Book for the city. The Old Corner Bookstore is one of the sites in the book with a pull down changing teh retails signage from Apothecary to Bookstore.

    Now struggling to get it published, I very much appreciate your honorable mention of the merging of two large houses.

    Thank you, Rhian, for your wonderfully written post. I very much enjoyed it.

    Check out my Boston pop-up book at http://www.ThePopUpBook.com if you have a chance.

    Cheers~
    Denise Price
    Author, paper engineer and innocent bystander

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