Boston Bookstores: An Indie Guide

What do Ralph Waldo Emerson and Robert Parker have in common? They both lived and worked in New England, and whether they sought the serenity of Walden Pond or roamed the tough streets of Boston, this region informs their work. Add in greats such as Louisa May Alcott, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Sylvia Plath, and Atul Gawande, and you’ll get a glimpse of the range of authors who call this area home.

old fashioned book shop sign on a street lamp
New England is a literary hotspot. Photo © florigianluigi/iStock.

There’s a reason New England—and particularly Greater Boston—continues to be a literary hotspot, more than three centuries after Anne Bradstreet penned her poems in what is now Cambridge. While groups like Grub Street and the Writers’ Room offer groups, classes, and support, and the Boston Literary District kicks off the annual Boston Book Fest with its fun Lit Hub pub crawl (Oct 26 this year), those of us who live by the pen know that what makes Boston’s literary heart beat are its independent bookstores. While chains—or online giants like Amazon—dominate elsewhere, the indie bookstore scene is alive and well here, creating an environment where readers and writers of all types thrive. Pop into some of these Boston bookstores, or check out Indiebound for a complete listing of indie bookstores in the Greater Boston area.

In Cambridge, home of Harvard University as well as Mistress Bradstreet, two quite different indies rule. Although it’s not affiliated with the university, Harvard Bookstore has held sway across the street from Harvard Yard since 1932. The sprawling bookstore features new fiction and nonfiction upstairs and a huge basement of remainders and used books below. Store best sellers and staff picks get their own displays, and one entire wall of featured titles are on sale at 20% off during their month in the spotlight. And if the book you seek is a rare or out-of-print tome, look to Paige M. Guttenberg, the store’s print-on-demand “book robot” (which also does a handy job with self-published works).

Right up Mass. Ave, Porter Square Books–winner of Boston Magazine’s “Best of Boston” for 2017–adds a café to the mix, along with a popular fiction section (vital to crime fiction authors like me!) that’s second to none, which means readers can enjoy a ginger lemonade as they browse the latest whodunit or NPR pick. Both shops have regular and varied reading series, as well as frequent buyer programs that reward readers.

Further west, brand new Belmont Books is the newest addition to the local indie list, filling a void left seven years ago when the beloved Charlesbank Books closed. Featuring weekly events and cozy children’s area, Belmont Books looks to become a community center. Head a bit further out, and you’ll find the Concord Bookshop, which has been serving Thoreau’s hometown since its founding in 1940. The knowledgeable staff, which includes former librarians and educators as well as writers, offer great staff picks.

Across the river, Brookline Booksmith holds sway. Since 1961, this huge and well curated store—winner of the Improper Bostonian’s 2017 Best Bookstore award—has a fun collection of toys, housewares, and gifts, as well as volumes old and new. Booksmith’s busy event series not only hosts touring authors but also reading groups, like the Small Press Book Club and YA Fierce Reads events. In 2010, Booksmith’s sister store in Wellesley spun off under new owners as Wellesley Books, and has added a special focus on local authors to its own fine collection and reading series.

Downtown Boston, meanwhile, has its own book culture, and discerning readers often head to trendy Newbury Street for the quirky Trident Bookseller and Café. With its roots in counterculture, Trident is the place for works on astrology and alternative health, as well as healthy treats in its upstairs café. The multi-level store also boasts both a great selection of literary journals as well.

Meanwhile, out in Newton, the beloved New England Mobile Book Fair has finally lived up to the “mobile” part of its name, moving from its longtime location earlier this fall to a new spot down the street. For several months, the fate of the store—known for its warehouse-like shelves and books filed by publisher—was in doubt until a suitable new space was found. Although the move required some culling in the cavernous store, the hearty reception local readers (and authors) have given the new space (at 4,400 SF considerably smaller than the previous 32,000 SF store) demonstrates the strong relationship yet another indie bookstore has to the community.

After three nonfiction books and 22 cozy/amateur sleuth mysteries, Clea Simon returns to her rock & roll past this fall with World Enough (Severn House), an edgy Boston noir. She is also the author of four mystery series with cats in them, the most recent being the black cat-narrated As Dark As My Fur (Severn House) and the “pet noir,” When Bunnies Go Bad (Poisoned Pen Press), set in the Berkshires. A recovering journalist, Clea lives in Massachusetts. She can be reached at