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Closing store has them at loss for words

Late in the afternoon of the final day, as a cold darkness settled over Harvard Square, inside WordsWorth Books the stacks had been stripped of the great works of English literature. Gone were the biographies, travelogues, essays, and novels, some new and some centuries old, and along the shelves that once were lined with books on art, food, politics, and philosophy, now there was nothing.

At 6 o'clock on Saturday, Oct. 30, after the last customer had bid goodbye and the melancholy staff had departed for the farewell party at Charlie's Kitchen, at long last, after 28 years, it was time for Hillel Stavis and his wife, Donna Friedman, to lock the doors of their bookstore for the final time.

Exhausted by a week of cheerless clearance sales and depressed by so many mournful goodbyes, Stavis turned out the lights, and together, inside the bookstore, he and Friedman sat on the stairs that led to psychology and gardening. In the dark, among the ghosts of Faulkner, Dreiser, Nabokov, and other great writers whose works had graced the shelves at WordsWorth, they did what many of their customers had done that week.

They wept.

''We looked around," recalls Friedman, ''and it was our life's work."

Sitting among the litter, among posters of authors such as Hillary Rodham Clinton and Jack Germond and not far from a dracaena that looked dried out and defeated, they pondered what they'd lost to bankruptcy -- the bookstore at 30 Brattle Street that had led to their meeting and, eventually, their marriage, their two children, and all the exhilaration derived from nearly three decades of doing what they loved, which is living among, or, as Friedman says, just touching books.

Among the disappointments for Stavis was the awareness that for the first time since he'd opened WordsWorth in 1976, there'd be no holiday party this year for the staff -- some there longer than 20 years -- and no opportunity for favored customers to join in a champagne toast to the new year and, of course, to books.

After a half-hour, it was time to leave, to get on with life, which meant -- short term -- retrieving their two children after the Red Sox victory parade and -- long term -- shifting their focus to their remaining enterprise, which is financially sound, Curious George Goes to WordsWorth, a children's book and toy shop in Harvard Square.

An obituary would acknowledge that WordsWorth died because of pressures on independent bookstores across the country from online retailers such as Amazon.com and from giant chains such as Barnes & Noble, which manages the book department at the Harvard Coop.

Among their concerns at the closing of WordsWorth was the welfare of a homeless man who has lived under the stairs at WordsWorth, where he has slept, outdoors, on even the coldest nights, for more than 25 years.

''We've always taken care of him," said Friedman on the day of the closing. ''People who work at WordsWorth would bring food and blankets, and we'd try to get him to sleep in the bookstore on cold nights, but he'd never want to be locked in. Now, we worry what will happen to him."

Now, four weeks after the closing, Stavis and Friedman work out of their cramped office in the basement of Curious George, and in several recent interviews, they talked about the painful decline and fall of WordsWorth.

''It's been depressing," Stavis concedes. ''When a bookstore closes, it's not like a CVS closing and that's where you used to get your antacids. Nobody laments the passing of an antacid store, but a bookstore is like a part of the family."

Among those in mourning is Sanj Kharbanda, 41, an engineer who went to work at WordsWorth initially just for the summer of 1989 and stayed on to become manager.

''Working with books was amazingly addictive. I could go back to engineering, but to realize there are no options now in the world of books is painful. I know it sounds like I chickened out, but I didn't go to the farewell party and I couldn't even go to work the final 10 days because I couldn't bear to tell customers, 'Hey, we're leaving, sorry.' "

So integral was WordsWorth in the lives of book lovers that some young men chose it as the site to propose marriage. ''The most popular spot," says Kharbanda, ''was the poetry aisle."

The demise of WordsWorth is another blow to Harvard Square, which has experienced, in recent months, the closings of Tweeter, HMV music, Abercrombie & Fitch, and Brine's Sporting Goods, which moved to Belmont after more than 130 years on Brattle Street. Among institutions that have closed in recent years are the Tasty diner, the Wursthaus, and Sage's market, which had been in business for more than a century.

''The loss of WordsWorth is a disaster," says Sari Abul-Jubein, owner of the Casablanca restaurant. ''Another venerable institution is gone."

Having left the Harvard Coop to work at WordsWorth in 1979, Friedman married Stavis four years later, and the two are so synchronized they're able to insert phrases into one another's sentences.

''Sometimes," says Stavis, ''authors come in and rearrange the books on a table . . ."

''To give themselves a better display . . . " says Friedman.

''And one day, a writer came in who had written a biography," continues Stavis. ''After moving books to make his more prominent, and without identifying himself, he asked how the book was doing. A clerk said it was a dog, and later I got a nasty letter from the publisher saying we shouldn't be offering opinions. I had to send an apology."

In the golden years, 1980 to 1992, says Stavis, WordsWorth sold more copies of books published by Harvard Press than did all the bookstores in Europe, but in the 1990s, the store began a slide he blames on several causes.

First, bookstores such as Barnes & Noble buy inventory in bulk and get greater discounts. Also, mass marketing makes it profitable for books to be sold at venues other than bookstores: restaurants, supermarkets, hardware stores. And for Harvard Square, the closing of its only grocery store and the loss of independent stores to chains such as the Gap persuaded some shoppers that it was easier to shop at malls.

''In the 1980s," says Stavis, ''on Memorial Drive, you'd see people coming out of dorms and heading toward Harvard Square. In the 1990s, what you'd see in the windows of dorms was a Doppler effect of blue lights from computer screens, and you knew students were at their computer, hitting a key to order from Amazon.com. The only reason they'd come out of their dorms was to have Chinese food and mate."

WordsWorth did not escape the political protests for which Harvard Square is known.

''People would threaten us that if we carried a book they didn't like, they'd sticker it with a label that said 'racist' or 'antifeminist,' and that would, essentially, destroy the book."

In 2002, WordsWorth was picketed because Stavis withdrew financial support for WBUR-FM in the wake of what he said was biased coverage against Israel.

''Water under the bridge and blown out of proportion," he says. ''Yes, I was disenchanted, but at the time we cut back on all our advertising, equally, with 'BUR, WCRB-FM, and the Globe. Others, like Brandeis, also withheld donations."

Why, then, was WordsWorth picketed?

''That's Harvard Square. People believed other people should be constrained to give to organizations of their choosing. Tell me to whom you've given -- and if you haven't given to whom I want you to give, then I want to compel you to do that."

Stavis now says that if a decision is made to advertise, WBUR will be his venue.

''I think coverage has been modified, and we'd support 'BUR because of Robin Young," he said, referring to the cohost of WBUR's ''Here & Now." ''She's a neighbor and has a great show."

Stavis grew up in East Boston and Brookline, and worked in bookstores as a teenager. After graduating from McGill University and after two years in the Peace Corps in East Africa, he returned in the 1960s to work at Paperback Booksmith in Copley Square.

''It was right next to Ken's, the restaurant, and it attracted crazy people. One was a guy who sold Elijah Muhammad's newspaper, Muhammad Speaks, and he'd come in wearing a bow tie and declaim to an otherwise empty store, a preachy guy giving loud sermons.

''For a while, I ran a Boylston Street bookstore next to Schrafft's restaurant, now the Women's Educational and Industrial Union. One customer was Mrs. Kahlil Gibran, who lived on Beacon Hill. The Beacon Hill matrons would come into the bookstore and borrow a book from the lending library, then head to Schrafft's, which was unique, because it was a place where they could go and get tanked in the afternoon on martinis, gibsons, and Old-Fashioneds."

Wanting his own bookstore, Stavis opened WordsWorth with a loan from the Small Business Administration for what was then a record $56,000 for a bookstore.

As independent bookstores wither away, what of the future of reading? Is it time to prepare the obituary for bookstores?

''No, people read, although they have attention-span-reading-disorder. People buy books, but I have a suspicion they don't read them through. Everybody bought [Umberto] Eco's 'The Name of the Rose,' but how many read it?

''Habits are changing. Bookstores are no longer the sole repository, other than libraries, of intellectual pursuit. There's competition. Television has not only stupid music videos but serious offerings, like the History Channel. From the Internet, you can download Shakespeare.

''I don't want to give the impression books are becoming extinct. Recently, I was looking at John Locke's 'Essay Concerning Human Understanding.' Online, you can read three paragraphs and get the gist, but if you bought the book you might tend to read the whole thing. And unlike your tape recorder or a plasma TV, a book is relatively inexpensive. You can lose it and replace it easily, and so, when you think about Gutenberg's invention, it's proven to be portable, cheap, and remarkably durable."

What of people who dream about trading in their humdrum job to buy a bookstore?

''People fantasize about owning a bookstore, but what happens is that you get so busy with minutiae you don't have time to read. 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."

Jack Thomas can be reached at thomas@globe.com. 

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