The matter is not that this place is now a Chipotle. The Old Corner Bookstore, as much as ‘Ye Olde Sweete Shoppe,’ was debauched generations ago and made to serve whatever interest was literally afoot at that moment in time. The iconic site, a beautiful vernacular Eighteenth Century brick building on a corner of Boston nearly across from the equally historic Old South Meeting House and about a block from where Benjamin Franklin was born, has long been shadowed on all sides by the assembled monstrosities of Nineteenth and Twentieth century architecture. The fact that a fairly decent chain of Mexican food restaurants has chosen to lease the physical space where Thoreau and Emerson and Longfellow once argued the particulars of the New England Renaissance is incidental in the greater scheme. After all, where are the bones of Paul Revere’s horse now?
But Rhian Sasseen picked up the story for The Millions and there it is, photo and all, and in some visceral way the image begs for our attention. At least it does for me. The abscess of pain which is the cause of my frequent complaint about the death of the bookshop is instantly tapped. I could go on about the importance of the bookshop to our culture as the key to any sort of livable future as much as a touchstone to the past that has made us. But is that really the matter?
Just recently the space was a Jewelry store, but it has frequently been empty through the years. Just one of those odd spots, grandfathered by historic status—the shell frozen in time. Wikipedia has a decent entry that covers most of the important facts. The place was originally an apothecary. And the previous building on the site had been the home of Anne Hutchinson. My guess is that fewer than one in a thousand Americans know who Anne Hutchinson was, so why does that really matter?
As the address for the partnership of Ticknor and Fields, it was for a time the locus of American literature in the Nineteenth century. It might be argued that the physical address is not important and that the momentous changes that were wrought by the words spoken there and published there would have necessarily occurred elsewhere. But I am never sure of such things.
The chemistry of events, like the sunlight that fell or did not fall upon the battlefield at Hastings, are not to be dismissed so quickly. Victor Hugo once wrote, “Nothing is so powerful as an idea whose time has come.” Truly. All of the wonderful ideas of Emerson would certainly have found their way into print. Thoreau might have made a few more pencils and dawdled longer on an eddy in the Concord River, but he could not have been resisted. Paul Revere’s ride would have been remembered without Longfellow’s help, and perhaps more accurately. But the time and circumstance—the place—will play its part.
Recognizing a particular location to memorialize an event is only a way to capture the ephemeral and make it real to the present. I believe it’s a fair use of needed sentiment. Close by, on Milk Street, at the base of a nondescript office building, there is a plaque for the location of the original Franklin home. What does that gritty and gray spot have to do with that man who changed everything? Nothing, and everything, of course.
Just as the revolt of Anne Hutchinson against the authority of those who wished to govern her failed, and yet inspired those who would follow, perhaps we should look again at the words of Victor Hugo, not as a banner, but as a warning. The soul of America has been leased only for the moment. You may no longer buy a book at The Old Corner Bookshop, but the ideas fostered there have not been sold.