Literary Hot Spots: Boston

Boston may not have the same literary sway it held during the tenure of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and Nathaniel Hawthorne, but the city lacks not for creative literary outlets. Boston’s unique combination of highbrow college-town intellectualism and fiercely tribal neighborhood sectarianism may a paradoxical Bostonian make, but it creates great literature. Many talented writers—both local and imported—have tried their hand at capturing the unique, contradictory spirit of the Hub, from working-class observers like Michael Patrick Macdonald and Dennis Lehane to suburban and collegiate commentaries from Tom Perrotta and Zadie Smith. Along with great literature come great literary spaces. Following are some of my favorite spots to write, read, drink and eat like a writer in and around Boston.

With what seems like an infinite number of colleges within the city limits, Boston proper teems with an undercurrent of intellectual curiosity and collegiate-style laziness. Coffeehouses like ESPRESSO ROYALE (various locations) cater to Starbucks-averse grad students, freelancers and the like, whereas you can find magazine and book editors, along with more well-heeled literati lunching at the independently owned bookstore and restaurant TRIDENT BOOKSELLERS & CAFÉ (338 Newbury St.). One of the most writer-friendly cafés in Boston, Trident allows you to bring books and magazines to your table and peruse as you eat. Plus, they don’t give you bad looks when you sit feverishly slaving over a deadline for four hours while ordering nothing but hot tea.

GRUB STREET INC. (160 Boylston St.), Boston’s independent writing center, is the writing community’s homebase, offering everything from workshops and open-mike nights to meet-and-greets with agents and editors. Unlike more formal writing programs, Grub Street is unpretentious and inviting while maintaining a serious sense of purpose. Plus, they have a cool new clubhouse. And when you’re done with your book reading, head over to BUKOWSKI’S TAVERN (50 Dalton St.) in Back Bay. Named after the famous boozing author, the bar is dark, cramped (it resembles a cluttered bowling alley) and utterly fantastic. Fear not the beat poet/bike messenger crowd, the cash-only requirement or the fact that the place juts out over the Mass Pike. Just look for the neon “Dead Authors’ Club” sign in the window, get a seat in the back and order a Chimay Blue—the literary inspiration will take care of itself. Or, if it’s journalists gone wild you prefer, get to the Irish pub J.J. FOLEY’S (21 Kingston St.) in the South End around 4 p.m. nearly any day of the week, and watch the Boston Herald scribes drink off their deadlines.

In Cambridge, Boston’s edgy, artistic sister city, its residents vehemently argue that their side of the Charles River is the literary place to be. And they have a point: cheaper—though by no means cheap—rents and a couple of the best colleges in the country (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard University) push artistic and academic rigor together. 

To watch tenured professors mingle with brooding poets, head to ALGIERS COFFEE HOUSE (40 Brattle St.) in Harvard Square and ask to sit upstairs. Algiers is located in a beautiful old brick house called Brattle Hall. Sitting there, you’ll feel as if you’re eating, drinking and writing in someone’s cosmopolitan home. It’s filled night and day with tweed-clad academics and perpetually unshaven, darkly attired poets eating kebabs, drinking jasmine tea and writing, lost in iambic pentameter.

Three blocks away is the HARVARD BOOK STORE (1256 Massachusetts Ave.), which, since 1932, has been the gold standard of Boston-area independent bookstores, with a friendly, supremely knowledgeable staff and an eclectic book selection. I liked it so much that the second time I was there I purchased a frequent buyer card just to feel “in.” And around the corner from Harvard Book Store is the one-room GROLIER POETRY BOOK SHOP (6 Plympton St.), the only exclusively poetry bookstore in the Boston area, and one of two such stores in America (the other is in Seattle). Hanging above the bookshelves are pictures of Allen Ginsberg, T.S. Eliot and the many other famous patrons/friends of the store. The general manager, Daniel Wuenschel, is that rare person with an encyclopedic knowledge of poetry yet somehow not pedantic. And on top of that, he sports a bowtie. Clearly, he’s not messing around.

Once you’re tired of all that learning, get to THE THIRSTY SCHOLAR (70 Beacon St.) on the Cambridge/Somerville line. The pub is littered with musty old books in its bookcases, Irish expats, Harvard doctoral candidates and old-school Boston Globe journalists (you can find them in the semi-enclosed snug reading James Joyce and drinking Jameson Irish Whiskey every Wednesday night). One of my favorites in all of Boston, it just smells like knowledge. And, you know, Guinness.

On the opposite side of Boston is Brookline, the more affluent, family-oriented neighborhood. Although suburbs aren’t usually known for their distinctive literary tastes, Brookline’s city feel and unique Coolidge Corner neighborhood offers two gems worth mentioning. THE COOLIDGE CORNER THEATRE  (290 Harvard St.)—known locally as “The Coolidge”—is a nonprofit Art Deco theatre and has been around since Herbert Hoover’s presidency. The building is retro gorgeous, with a red curtain covering the screen when movies aren’t being shown. Top authors routinely give readings in the theatre, up on stage in front of the screen, in conjunction with Coolidge Corner’s other gem, the independent bookstore BROOKLINE BOOKSMITH (279 Harvard St.), which is across the street from the theatre. The store features a used book cellar and a book club, and routinely wins best bookstore honors—not bad for the ’burbs.

Share Your Literary Hot Spot

We’re building a directory for the hottest literary hot spots across the U.S. and we need your help. We don’t care if you live in New York, San Francisco or Tupelo, Miss., we want to hear from you. Give us the dirt on the hot spot in your town or find one in your area. What we need is:

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