Convert the Old Corner Bookstore into a Museum of Boston’s Literary History

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Petition to Historic Boston Incorporated: Kathy Kottaridis, Executive Director, Board of Directors, Council of Advisors.

We urge the owner of the Old Corner Bookstore, Historic Boston Inc., to work with other civic, literary, and tourist organizations and with interested individuals to develop and then implement a plan for repurposing the Old Corner Boookstore as a museum of Boston’s literary history.

Rationale: Imagine that you’re walking along the Freedom Trail through the North End and come to the Paul Revere House. Now imagine that, instead of a historic museum, the building has been converted into a McDonalds. As you approach the structure, below a conspicuous corporate logo, with its golden arches and bright red lettering, you see a small green-and-white plaque that briefly comments on its famous former occupant.

If this seems incongruous, you know how readers of American literature feel when they arrive at the Old Corner Bookstore (OCB) at the intersection of Washington and School Streets and find not a bookseller, small press, or other fitting occupant but a Chipotle Mexican Grill. Saved from demolition in 1960 by its current owner, Historic Boston Inc., the building has been leased out since 2011 to raise money for the organization’s other preservation work. Saving the structure was heroic, but it’s time now to put the building to a more appropriate use.

Constructed in 1718 on the site of Anne Hutchinson’s cottage, the building, which will turn 300 in 2018, is arguably the most important site in American literary history. For about two decades starting in the early 1840s, the variously named firm of William D. Ticknor & Co., Ticknor, Reed, and Fields, and Ticknor and Fields, based in the OCB, provided a model for how American publishers could nurture the growth of native literature. By actively promoting writers like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Julia Ward Howe, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Henry David Thoreau (among many others), the firm became an integral part of the wider literary ecosystem of Boston in the middle of the nineteenth century.

Between 1820 and 1860 and within blocks of the OCB in what should be considered Boston’s Publishers Row, about 180 magazines were published. Some of them ran briefly, such as James Russell Lowell’s Pioneer, which lasted for only 3 months in 1843 but managed to publish both Hawthorne’s “The Birthmark” and Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” two of the most celebrated short stories in world literature. Some magazines endured much longer, like the Atlantic Monthly, which was launched in 1857 and is still running today. For 4 years starting in 1840, the Dial, edited by Margaret Fuller and others, published major works of the Transcendentalist movement.

Just north of the OCB near the Government Center MBTA stop, the progressive editor Lydia Maria Child’s Juvenile Miscellany (1826-34) all but invented modern children’s literature in its playful, colorful pages. The most important antebellum editor of women’s magazines, Sarah Josepha Hale, began this work in Boston by editing the Ladies Magazine here from 1828 to 1836 and then by continuing to edit it as Godey’s Lady’s Book, first in Boston and then in Philadelphia, for 40 years.

Between 1850 and 1855, the last years during which Boston led the nation in literary creativity if not in the business of publishing, authors associated with the firm would stop by the OCB to enjoy a cup of coffee, discuss business, and schmooze. If they exited the building, turned left and walked just a few feet up Washington Street, they would have been able to visit the more political offices of John P. Jewett and Company, which published the first book-length copies of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1852 and the only work of fiction written by Frederick Douglass, “The Heroic Slave,” in 1853. Crossing the street and walking toward the Old State House, they could have enjoyed a visit to the Fetridge Periodical Arcade, a high-energy retailer of books and magazines.

At the center of all this literary creativity stood the OCB. Had Ticknor and Co. published only Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850) and other novels and tales, Howe’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic" (1862), Emerson’s The Conduct of Life (1860), Longfellow’s Evangeline (1847) and Tales of the Wayside Inn (1863), and Thoreau’s Walden; or Life in the Woods (1854) and Cape Cod (1865), the building’s place in the blossoming of United States literature would be well worth celebrating. But these works only begin to suggest the range and significance of what happened at the site during decades in which Boston thought of itself as the Athens of America.

Historic Boston, Inc. has announced that its plan for celebrating the 300th anniversary of the OCB involves a possible sound and light show and an app that will allow people to see early images of the structure on smart phones. While worthwhile in themselves, these gestures are either only temporary or virtual.

Properly funded and thoughtfully repurposed as a museum of Boston’s literary heritage, the OCB's ground floor could host a permanent exhibition about the role of Ticknor and Fields in the development of American literature and rotating exhibits about Bostonian writers, editors, publishers, theaters, libraries, magazines, movements, genres, and books. Literary walking tours could be run from the site, and the upper floors could house complementary literary and cultural organizations, providing regular income and more programming for the building.

The parallel to the Paul Revere House illustrates the relative importance of the OCB. Until Longfellow published his famous poem in the January 1861 issue of the Atlantic Monthly, Revere was far less well known than he has been ever since. Originally published by the firm of Phillips and Sampson on Winter Street, by 1861 the Atlantic had been purchased by Ticknor and Fields and was being published from their offices in (you guessed it!) the OCB. Would a Paul Revere House app suffice for that historic building? The Freedom Trail does a terrific job of telling the story of Boston’s colonial and revolutionary history. The Old Corner Bookstore should serve a similar function for the city’s legendary contributions to national and world literature and, in the process, become one of Boston’s most engaging tourist attractions.

Practical Considerations We understand that Historic Boston Inc. depends on rental income from the OCB to fund its other worthy conservation projects and that any plan for repurposing the building will need to take this into account in its pursuit of new funding. Insofar as the Chipotle lease runs through 2020 and will probably be renewed through 2025, there is time to develop a workable plan that will support both Historic Boston Inc. and the broader goals of the project. Such a plan could be explored through a feasibility study, but so far Historic Boston Inc. has been unwilling to support taking this crucial first step. 

This petition was written by Paul Lewis, Professor of English at Boston College and President of the Poe Studies Association, and is supported by these first signers:

Helene Atwan, Director, Beacon Press.

Michael Barton President, The Ticknor Society.

Alfred Bendixen, Executive Director, American Literature Association.

Michael J. Frederick, Executive Director, The Thoreau Society.

Sandra Gustafson, Editor of Early American Literature and Norton Anthology of American Literature,Vol. A, Professor of English and American Studies, University of Notre Dame.

Sandra Hughes, President, Nathaniel Hawthorne Society.

Christoph Irmscher, Provost Professor of English, Indiana University of Bloomington; Author, Longfellow Redux, Public Poet, Private Man: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow at 200, etc.

Peter Jeffreys, Associate Professor of English; Suffolk University Liaison to the Boston Literary District.

Richard Kopley, Penn State DuBois Distinguished Professor of English; Author, The Threads of The Scarlet Letter, etc.

Megan Marshall, Author of Margaret Fuller: An American Life, The Peabody Sisters, etc.

Matthew Pearl, Author of The Poe Shadow, The Dante Club, The Technologists, etc.

Todd Richardson, President, Ralph Waldo Emerson Society

Stefanie Rocknak, Sculptor, Poe Returning to Boston

Matthew Taylor, Co-Editor, American Literature, Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill

David Tebaldi, Executive Director, Mass Humanities

Priscilla Wald, Co-Editor, American Literature; R. Florence Brinkley Professor of English, Duke University.



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