In the quiet basement room at the Concord Free Public Library, Leona Cheung studies Louisa May Alcott’s slanted handwriting, marveling at the only two remaining chapters of the original manuscript of Little Women. Alcott destroyed the others, and left a note explaining that these precious pages had been “saved by Mother’s desire” (in other words, her mom begged her to keep them). Cheung, a pianist from Hong Kong studying at the New England Conservatory, had read a Chinese translation of Little Women as a girl, but didn’t recall much about Alcott or the author’s hometown. Then she saw Greta Gerwig’s 2019 movie adaptation, which filmed at several locations in Concord, and she just had to see it for herself. “I loved the picture and how the place was portrayed,” she says. “So I was curious: What is Concord actually like?”
She’s not the only one asking that question. In recent months, Little Women fans have been flocking to Concord, thanks to the popularity of the film, which was nominated for six Oscars. It wasn’t always this way. When I was growing up in the 1970s, the historic spots tied to Little Women seemed somehow less consequential than places dedicated to male authors such as Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. I read my first book at Alcott Elementary School — named not for Louisa, but her father, Bronson. I played soccer at Emerson Field, became a Girl Scout at the Revolutionary War landmark the North Bridge, and tried to write like Thoreau on field trips to Walden Pond. But Gerwig’s film has, at long last, shifted the spotlight onto Concord’s most famous female author.
Tourism has long been essential to the Concord economy. As kids, my sister and I earned our first paychecks thanks to the tourist industry. I scooped ice cream at Vermont Creamery and sold souvenirs at the Mary Curtis Shop on Main Street, while she cleaned bathrooms at the Colonial Inn. Concord’s peak tourist season kicks off around Patriots Day and continues into fall, when the leaf peepers arrive. But this winter, tourists are coming in greater numbers, says Beth Williams, the town’s tourism and visitor services manager. Downtown businesses reported strong sales at the end of 2019 and in early 2020. Although unseasonably warm weather may have helped, many in town point to another factor: the Little Women effect.
When the film hit theaters over Christmas weekend, Orchard House, the historic home where Alcott wrote and set the book, immediately saw triple the number of its usual visitors, says Jan Turnquist, the museum’s executive director. And it didn’t let up: On many days during typically slow January and February, the number of visitors nearly doubled from previous averages.
In Concord these days, you can see the influence of the movie throughout downtown. International visitors are buying art supplies at the Albright Art shop to sketch Orchard House. Little Women has also “made a definite difference with day-trippers” who have been frequenting local restaurants, says Andy Seidel, general manager of the Colonial Inn. The inn’s $50-per-head afternoon tea, which features Turnquist portraying Louisa May Alcott, sold out two 24-seat offerings on Valentine’s Day weekend, with 60 more hopefuls stuck on its wait list.
Before the movie, “there wasn’t much movement on Alcott-related books,” recalls Nancy Joroff of the Barrow Bookstore, which specializes in used and antique local works. But since the film’s release, the store has expanded inventory, unpacked old stock from storage, and answered calls from other bookstores desperate to resupply. One father of an 8-year-old daughter even drove from Connecticut to purchase a $750 first-edition volume illustrated by Alcott. The Concord Bookshop, another store in town, also reports increases across all Alcott-related titles since November. Meanwhile, Anke Voss, who curates the town library’s special collections, is receiving daily inquiries about Alcott’s manuscripts, original photographs, and other materials. That, she says, is “very unusual for just one author or collection.”
Perhaps most surprising of all, visitors are actually spending money, says Marie Foley, who sells souvenirs and gifts at her shop Revolutionary Concord. “They’re not just wandering around Concord and soaking it in,” she says. “They’re actually going into the shops, and they’re not just buying Louisa May Alcott things, but they also have fallen in love with the town.”
When Little Women was first published — in two separate volumes that were later merged into one book in the 1880s — it received glowing reviews in major magazines and was widely read internationally by both men and women of all ages.
But as the decades passed, Alcott’s work receded into the fringes of American culture, says Anne Boyd Rioux, author of Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy: The Story of Little Women and Why It Still Matters. Unlike the books by Alcott’s contemporary Mark Twain, whose Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was canonized in school curricula, Little Women was kept “private, perceived as a book that is read under the covers with a flashlight by girls at home,” Rioux says.
Gerwig’s film, which has already grossed more than $199 million globally, has catapulted the novel into modern-day relevance. That’s because the director’s adaptation doesn’t treat the book as a story for little girls, but as an empowering tale about growing up, having a voice, and realizing your own personal power, Rioux says. “We are in a moment when women are speaking about their lived experiences in public in a way they never have before.”
Little Women is the most high-profile movie to film in Concord, though a number of productions have shot scenes here. In 2017, filming for Daddy’s Home 2 (starring Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg) closed off the downtown for a couple of days, and the production company donated about $20,000 to Concord, which was used in part to help renovate the Visitor Center. But it certainly didn’t spawn a surge in local tourism the way Little Women has, says Kate Hodges, the deputy town manager.
Massachusetts as a whole is betting on a boost from film tourism. The Massachusetts Film Office, part of the state’s Office of Travel and Tourism, promotes local media production through a generous film tax credit incentive. The office reports more than 60 movies and TV series have been filmed in the state since early 2018. The website’s Little Women film map — translated into French, Italian, and Japanese — promotes 19 local locations, including four sites in Concord.
Stefan Roesch, a New Zealand-based film tourism expert, directs a company that connects fans with film destinations called FilmQuest. His company’s 2016 international survey of film commissioners estimates that TV and movies already influence how 80 million people a year choose their trips, a trend he expects to “significantly increase” over the next two decades. The most successful destinations create a deep connection between visitors and the story, he says. “It’s all about how you tell your story.” In Concord, visitors can now imagine themselves in the world of Little Women from multiple vantage points, including historically underrepresented ones. At The Robbins House, for instance, they can learn about the lives of African-Americans who lived at the same time as Alcott.
Sometimes a link to a film or TV show can provide an enormous tourism boost, as evidenced by The Lord of the Rings fans trekking through New Zealand or Game of Thrones devotees flocking to Croatia and Iceland. Sometimes, though, it can go drastically wrong: Witness the Austrian village that happens to look a little like Arendelle of Disney’s wildly popular Frozen, which became so overrun by visitors that officials were forced to impose restrictions on tourists.
Does the success of Little Women put Concord at risk for over-tourism? Most residents don’t think so — this isn’t Harry Potter, says one — although some do worry about existing traffic and parking problems. Williams, the tourism manager, is keeping that at the top of her mind. “My goal is to add value, to add economic vitality to this town,” she says, “not to make it more difficult for people to get around or make it difficult to park.”
Jenny Perrotta, who lives in Concord, understands why people want to visit, but has mixed feelings about the influx of curious visitors. “I still want it to be that safe place where people who live here feel like they can have their kids explore and hang out in town without 10 buses coming down Main Street all in a row,” she says. “I can’t imagine it’s going to turn into that, but I guess you never know.”
Some believe Alcott will never draw as many visitors as the male writers of her time. Seidel, of the Colonial Inn, says Thoreau remains the giant in Concord’s literary tourism, though he admits Alcott is gaining ground. And, perhaps because of that, the town has no plans to stop promoting her or her most famous book anytime soon. A new walking tour led by certified guides takes visitors to several sites related to Alcott — some well-known places like her burial site at Author’s Ridge, and others more obscure, like the town house where she registered as Concord’s first female voter. And this summer, Gerwig’s film will be screened once a month at The Umbrella Arts Center.
But Little Women will soon have some competition in the world of historical film shoots. Concord’s iconic landmark the North Bridge may set the stage for scenes in Ken Burns’s upcoming documentary on the Revolutionary War. The buzz around town is that his film scouts have already visited.
Susan Margolin is a writer who lives in Newton. Send comments to email@example.com.