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Hillel Stavis, innovative founder of Harvard Square’s WordsWorth Books, dies

Wordsworth bookstore owner Hillel Stavis with wife Donna Friedman on the day the store closed after 28 years as a Harvard Sq. landmark.

For Hillel Stavis, who first sold books part time as a high school student, there was something almost spiritual about spending time in a sanctuary of book-lined shelves.

“That reverential moment when somebody walks into a bookstore,” he told the Globe in 1997, “is a different kind of experience from entering a clothing store or supermarket.”

When he launched his own bookstore, though, he had his feet firmly planted on the ground — on sidewalks, to be precise. Scouting Greater Boston locations and calculating foot traffic, he settled on Harvard Square, where he opened WordsWorth Books on Brattle Street in 1976. Even though the neighborhood already had bookshops, he saw it was full of readers walking with books in hand.


“There’s no sense in opening a store where everyone buys a hamburger at McDonald’s and then goes home to watch TV,” he said.

Mr. Stavis, whose other businesses included Cambridge’s iconic Curious George store, died of heart failure Oct. 20 in Eaton, N.H. He was 78 and divided his time between his Arlington home and an 1820s farmhouse in Eaton that he was renovating.

From the day that WordsWorth opened, Mr. Stavis was innovative. He took careful note of Barnes & Noble’s decision to open what was then Boston’s largest bookstore, in Downtown Crossing, at about the same time that he launched his store.

In a daring approach, he decided to sell all new books for less than the cover price: 15 percent off hardcovers, a 10 percent markdown on paperbacks.

Naysayers abounded among independent bookstores. In Globe interviews, Mr. Stavis recalled hearing that Harvard Square booksellers initially had a betting pool for how long it would take him to go out of business. It’s a safe bet that none of them guessed 28 years: WordsWorth closed in 2004, squeezed by rising rent costs and online competition from Amazon.


For years, Mr. Stavis prospered and estimated at one point that WordsWorth had $10 million in annual revenue and 110 employees.

Part of the appeal was Mr. Stavis himself.

“He was a funny guy,” said his wife, Donna Friedman, with whom Mr. Stavis ran WordsWorth. “That’s pretty much the first thing everyone says about him, and that’s what drew me to him when I first met him.”

In the 1980s, Mr. Stavis and a colleague, Glen Legere, created a computer system to replace the by-hand method of tracking inventory, through which employees tallied sales on 3-by-5 index cards.

They called their digital system WordStock and marketed it to other bookstores. Using the program, WordsWorth clerks could immediately tell customers on which shelf or table to find a book. It also helped the store keep more titles on hand, and know how many copies were in-house, because WordStock signaled when to reorder fast-selling books.

By the late 1990s, as competition became more complex, WordsWorth was still usually the place to go for the best prices.

In 1998, a pair of Globe reporters checked prices for five books at giant retailers such as Barnes & Noble and Borders, and compared them to online sellers such as Amazon and to independent bookstores.

“On three of our five books, Wordsworth either had the lowest price or matched it,” they reported.

Although the advertising budgets of independent bookstores couldn’t compete with Barnes & Noble or Amazon, “in the end, the best way of shopping for a book,” Mr. Stavis said, “is to just walk in the store.”


Born in Boston on July 1, 1945, Hillel Stavis grew up in Brookline near Coolidge Corner.

He was the second of three siblings whose parents, Samuel Stavis and Sylvia Citron Stavis, ran an ambulance service. Hillel was barely into his teens when his father died.

After graduating from Brookline High School, Mr. Stavis received a bachelor’s degree from McGill University in Montreal before becoming a Peace Corps volunteer, teaching science in Kenya.

A bout with malaria cut short his time there after a little more than a year, and he headed to Paris to study medicine, returning home fluent in French and Swahili.

“He picked up languages pretty easily,” Donna said.

Working initially at bookstores in Boston and New York City — including for legendary bookseller Marshall Smith, founder of what is now Brookline Booksmith — Mr. Stavis was well-versed in the business by the time he opened WordsWorth.

“I don’t think anyone had envisioned a store like WordsWorth, but he was determined and he made it happen because of his love of books and his encyclopedic knowledge of the book business,” said his sister, Laurel Stavis, a New Hampshire state representative who lives in Lebanon, N.H.

She had just graduated from New England Conservatory when she started helping him prepare to open WordsWorth, which initially occupied the downstairs of a Brattle Street building before expanding upward.


“I have a very vivid memory of putting the first books on the shelves and standing there once the shelves were filled and wondering, will people walk down those stairs,” she said, “which of course they did, in droves.”

Mr. Stavis’s family estimated that during WordsWorth’s peak years, the store sold about 3,000 books a day.

In 1983, Mr. Stavis married Donna Friedman, who had two children: Myles, who now lives in of Arlington, and Lily Jane of Merrimac.

“I know both of our children felt like he was their best friend,” Donna said.

Arrangements for a memorial service are private.

Mr. Stavis and his wife opened other stores over the years, including a Cambridge bookstore that sold only titles published by Penguin.

For a time, they had a gift shop in Harvard Square and a children’s store in Chestnut Hill, too, but their most memorable other business was Curious George & Friends.

They had been neighbors of Margret and Hans Rey, author and illustrator of the “Curious George” books. Hans died in 1977. Before Margaret died in 1996, she supported the suggestion by Mr. Stavis and his wife that they open a Curious George store in Harvard Square.

Curious George & Friends outlasted WordsWorth, but it closed in 2011.

As an ardent supporter of Jewish causes, Mr. Stavis found himself in the news more than 20 years ago when declining profits prompted him to cut back on advertising at places such as the Globe and WBUR-FM, to which he had contributed several thousand dollars annually as a sponsor.


Mr. Stavis was also a vocal critic of WBUR’s news coverage, some of which he considered anti-Israel. He dropped his sponsorship around the time that other critics of the station’s Israel reporting were eliminating their financial support. Activists leafleted outside WordsWorth, saying he was attempting to “suppress” reporting. “We don’t believe anyone should be required, in perpetuity, to contribute to an organization they believe is biased,” Mr. Stavis told the Globe.

Politics were often part of his business, he noted. Some shoppers, he said, used stickers to deface books they considered racist or antifeminist.

WordsWorth also had taken a stand by stocking and selling hundreds of copies of “The Satanic Verses” after Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini called for the death of the book’s author, Salman Rushdie. Mr. Stavis donated proceeds to a fund for threatened writers.

Though Mr. Stavis brought books home at night to read — “I’m like a kid in a candy store,” he said — work always came first.

“People fantasize about owning a bookstore, but what happens is that you get so busy with minutiae, you don’t have time to read,” he said. “If there’s a retirement home for booksellers, what you’d see is a lot of old booksellers sitting in rocking chairs, and what would they be doing? They’d be reading all the books they never had time to read when they owned a bookstore.”

Bryan Marquard can be reached at