Brookline Booksmith: Dedicated to the Fine Art of Browsing


smith is a craftsman, one who typically practices welding and forging to produce some kind of metalwork. The term most often refers to a blacksmith, but as a suffix it attaches to a variety of  metal products, from locks to blades to copper.

Marshall Smith, though, is a different kind of smith—he’s a booksmith.  

Brookline Booksmith, an icon of Coolidge Corner and the former workplace of Smith, has occupied its space for over 50 years. It has only changed location once, just down the street to a bigger site, and with the move, it became Brookline Booksmith. Before that, it was Paperback Booksmith.

Paperback books came into the mainstream during the Great Depression. In 1935, at a time when most books worth reading were only published hardcover, Allen Lane—founder of Penguin Books—wanted to print renowned literature with softcovers for readers’ accessibility, both physically and economically. Beside magazines and papers on newsstands around the globe, paperback books hit the market with great success. They were a convenience for travelers, a reasonably priced resource for avid readers, and a disposable necessity for deployed soldiers during lengthy periods of inactivity.

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n the ’60s, Smith took that idea and ran. Leaving a career in business, Smith ached to do something important. Nick Petrulakis, assistant manager of Brookline Booksmith, recalled Smith telling him about it.

“He didn’t feel qualified to be a teacher, so he decided to open a bookstore,” he said.

Intentionally or unintentionally, Lane’s idea to make quality literature available in an accessible form inspired Smith to open one Paperback Booksmith, which quickly led to a second location in 1961 that’s now Brookline Booksmith.

Various iterations of Smith’s business have opened and closed—at one point with as many as 75 locations and a Videosmith in the basement of the Brookline location—but Brookline Booksmith is the sole survivor.

The Videosmith existed until the mid-2000s, when video stores gave way to digital movie providers. Repurposing the space, the Booksmith built the Used Book Cellar, an underground feature that’s easy to miss because of the spectacle of the first floor but makes the experience all the better. Buying and selling used books, the Used Book Cellar also offers free gift wrapping for customers.

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n Brookline Booksmith’s beginning, before the Used Book Cellar and Videosmith were even ideas, Paperback Booksmith was a sweet juxtaposition to the stuffy, uppity bookstores that contemporaneously existed. Smith wanted to bring literature in a convenient form to readers through a casual and comfortable setting, so he sold only paperback books for the first five or so years of the bookstore’s operation. When he decided to incorporate hardcovers into their inventory, they dropped Paperback from its name but continued to greet customers with their original slogan, “Dedicated to the fine art of browsing.”

Today, from as early as 8:30 a.m. to as late as 11 p.m., Brookline Booksmith operates with this philosophy still in mind, but with even more to browse.

Against the northwest wall of the store, the Giftsmith carries cards, tchotchkes, book paraphernalia, knick-knacks, and local products that are perfect presents for friends and family. Books—new and used, hardcover and paperback, planners, children’s, and stationary—make up displays between the floor to ceiling bookshelves on every wall. Schedules of events on the storefront’s chalkboard and fliers by the door welcome customers. Every Sunday, the Kidsmith hosts gaggles of giggling children eager to hear the next story animatedly read by one of the Booksmith’s 40 team members.

Still, like any other bookstore, Brookline Booksmith has had its fair share of struggles. With the familiarity of bookstore chains like Borders and Barnes and Noble, the uncertainty of the 2008 Recession, and the unmatchable convenience of Amazon, there’s no way it couldn’t have. But being in a community as dedicated to the Booksmith as the bookstore is to the fine art of browsing, the Booksmith lives on.

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efore Petrulakis began at the Booksmith, he had ran numerous bookshops in northern California. In May of 2008, he had been managing a shop which would be welcoming a new neighbor: Barnes and Noble. The day the store opened, its manager gave Petrulakis’ shop a visit. In a moment incredibly reminiscent of You’ve Got Mail, he introduced himself, gave his condolences to the store with an, “It was nice to know you,” and left.

The Booksmith never experienced any antagonism as hostile as that, but for about 15 years between the early ’90s and 2000s, a Barnes and Noble lived just down the street.

There’s a reason that indie bookstores like Brookline Booksmith have been able to outlive the chains that have been eaten by the monopolizing monster that is Amazon. The singularity that prevents indie bookstores from becoming chain bookstores along with adaptability ensures that these small business quickly react to social, economic, and technological changes in the world. Unable to make a sustainable change across hundreds of locations in a short period of time, bookstore chains strained to cope with those fluctuations.

Indie bookstores are outliving Amazon because they have what the internet cannot provide: what Petrulakis called, “the experience that you can’t download.”

That experience is reliant on people. Book clubs, readings, and author events are scheduled regularly and held either in whatever space is available between the two levels of the shop or at a nearby location, usually the Coolidge Theater, The Wilbur Theatre, or the Brookline Library.

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ot quite as noticeable as a recent aesthetic change in the layout of the bookstore—the art books have been moved to a new corner in the front of the store, just next to the cook books—a few administrative changes have occurred in the Booksmith workshop in the last few years. In the summer of 2018, long time manager Dana Brigham retired. She was with the shop for almost 40 years with an ever-present intention to make the Booksmith the best it could be—a sentiment that certainly didn’t leave with her.

This past January, Smith stepped down for good from the Booksmith, leaving the ownership in the hands of Peter Win and Lisa Gozashti, both former assistant managers of the store. Although Smith has since moved on from his time as a bookseller and a shop owner, part of him will always be in the store—and its name—for as long as Brookline Booksmith exists. And the citizens of Brookline will make sure that continues for a while.

Brookline Booksmith is forever changed by those who kept it running smoothly, and it’s constantly affected by the people who walk through its doors. From regulars to new customers, there’s a sense of magic about being engulfed in books, a kind that even the youngest readers can detect:

“A child came in, being pushed in a stroller, but there was a blanket over the stroller so you couldn’t see her,” Petrulakis said. “But I heard something, then I looked, and saw a little tiny hand poke out and wave from underneath the blanket—the little tiny voice said, ‘Hello, books! Hello, books!’”

Featured Images by Mary Wilkie / Heights Editor

Mary Wilkie

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