new england literary news | Nina MacLaughlin

Turning Old Corner Bookstore into a museum; legacy of MLK’s murder

An undated photo of the Old Corner Bookstore on the corner
An undated photo of the Old Corner Bookstore on the corner

The story of the Old Corner Bookstore

On the corner of School and Washington streets in Downtown Crossing, along the Freedom Trail, sits a brick building containing a Chipotle Mexican Grill restaurant, belying the structure’s long, storied history.

Over the years the so-called Old Corner Bookstore building, constructed in 1718, has housed a private home, drugstore, bookstore, jewelry store, and purveyor of Boston Globe-related books and memorabilia. Perhaps its most important tenant, though, was Ticknor and Fields. That company is credited with putting American literature on the map in the mid-19th century, publishing Ralph Waldo Emerson, Lydia Maria Child, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Thoreau, Twain, Dickens, Horatio Alger, and others.


On the occasion of the building’s 300th birthday, a group of writers, editors, and academics is hoping to persuade Historic Boston , the nonprofit that owns the building, to turn the spot into a museum of local literary history. “It’s not just an important site in American literary history,” says Paul Lewis, Boston College professor and president of the Poe Studies Association, “it’s the most important site.”

Lewis, who spearheaded the successful drive to construct a statue honoring Boston-born Edgar Allan Poe near the Common, recently created a petition calling for Historic Boston , which saved the building from demolition in 1960, to do a feasibility study for a museum. In the first three weeks, over 3,000 people have signed, including author Matthew Pearl, Zachary Bos, editor of New England Review of Books, as well as presidents and executive directors of the Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Thoreau societies.

Prospects don’t look promising. Historic Boston executive director Kathy Kottaridis explained in an e-mail that revenue from the building helps finance other preservation projects. “The Old Corner Bookstore historically was always a commercial property, and keeping it that way is consistent with Historic Boston Inc.’s mission,’’ she wrote. “We will gladly entertain any ideas for space but are not creators or operators of museums.”


New work on the assassination of MLK

The assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 was “a tipping point in the nation’s racial history,” writes Newburyport historian and University of New Hampshire professor Jason Sokol in his forthcoming book, The Heavens Might Crack: The Death and Legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.’’ (Basic). This striking and complex new work looks not so much at King himself as it does at the impact of his death and how it opened a wound in the country that has yet to heal. Sokol moves from the hours and days after his death to the present day, looking at Obama’s election, the Black Lives Matter movement, and NFL player Colin Kaepernick’s taking a knee during the national anthem. The murder of the advocate of peaceful resistance ironically “helped to create a more hostile world,” Sokol concludes, as five decades later, “our nation still seems to tear along the same lines of racial hatred. Our social fabric has not yet been mended.”

Characters of the Cape

Retired stockbroker John Whelan has lived on Cape Cod for most of his life, and the light and color and character of the flexed bicep of Massachusetts seem to run in his blood. Seeking to capture the character of the place through its residents, he teamed up with photographer Kim Roderiques to make I Am of Cape Cod: People and Their Stories’’ (Hummingbird), a recently published book of photographs and personal testimonies. The 139 subjects are young and old, wash-ashores and natives; they are musicians, businesspeople, nonprofiters, dancers, students, and sand-dune tour guides. Ramona Peters is a member of the Bear Clan of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe; her people have been on the Cape for 12,000 years. Mike O’Connor runs a bird-watching store in Orleans and writes of how the Outer Cape was likely the only place in the world that would be hospitable to the sort of specialized, whimsical business he wanted to run. The book shows the heartbeat and character of the sand dune at the edge of the world.


Coming out

Peach’’ by Emma Glass (Bloomsbury)

The Perfect Nanny’’ by Leila Slimani, translated from the French by Sam Taylor (Penguin)

Palaces’’ by Simon Jacobs (Two Dollar Radio)

Pick of the week

Sally Lovegrove at Barrett Book in Darien, Conn., recommends Uncommon Type: Some Stories by Tom Hanks’’ (Knopf): “Yes, that Tom Hanks. Fans of Mr. Hanks will enjoy these 24 heartfelt and often whimsical stories, which range from a son discovering his father’s secret life during a day they share surfing, to a story set in the future where the narrator keeps returning to the 1939 World’s Fair. ”

Nina MacLaughlin is the author of “Hammer Head: The Making of a Carpenter.” She can be reached at