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Secondhand gold

Bookshop's storied history speaks volumes

I wish I'd known George Gloss. He was the guy who, back in 1969, rented a covered wagon and a cowboy to drive the horses and then rode around downtown Boston tossing books to startled pedestrians.

On the sides of the wagon was written: "Go West, Booklovers -- Go to 5 West Street -- Brattle Book Shop." He might as well have been throwing Milky Ways, and he tied up traffic to a fare-thee-well until the cops finally corralled him.

In 1949, Gloss had bought a fading used book emporium called the Brattle Book Shop, founded in 1825 on a street by the same name, and began business in basement space.

Both Brattles, the street and the store, disappeared in the spasm of urban renewal in the 1960s that produced the regrettable Government Center.

(So the Brattle took its name not from the grand Tory Street in Cambridge, as many assume, but the narrow affair that ran from Cambridge Street down to Dock Square through what is now City Hall.)

The covered wagon campaign marked his second forced departure, this time from the Sears Crescent Building. He owned half of it until the city grabbed it by eminent domain.

The man, equal parts character and mensch, moved seven times in all. He gave away all his remaining stock on the final day each time, says his son Ken, who has ably run the business since his father died in 1985. (Ken planned a career in chemistry, but joined his father full time in 1973 and hasn't lighted a Bunsen burner since.)

The wooden building Gloss bought at 5 West St. burned to the ground in February 1980.

All was lost. Within two months, thanks to an army of friends and customers, the Brattle resurfaced a few doors away in the storefront now occupied by Fajitas & 'Ritas.

Three years later, Gloss pere et fils bought the current three-story brick building at 9 West St., where on the first floor, Cinderella of Boston sold women's shoes in sizes 2-5 1/2.

I belabor this history because it's gorgeous stuff. Ken, 57, tells it in his third-floor office, surrounded by foothills of rare books and the Jimmy Cagney painting of blue pansies that hangs over his desk. (It's not great art but it is Cagney.)

Let's be clear: The Brattle Book Shop is as powerful a beacon to booklovers, local and outlander, as the Athenaeum or the Boston Public Library. It's got its share of rare books, but it gets its mojo from more than 150,000 secondhand ones on damned near anything.

We talk Civil War and Gloss says I won't find much general history on it. His people are far beyond that: "They'll be looking for 300 pages on the tactics of Nathan Bedford Forrest. (As he speaks, I glimpse a copy of "The History of the 3rd Pennsylvania Cavalry, 1861-1865.")

His customers sniff for books like tapirs out for ants. You could fire a mortar 3 feet away from a guy and he'd remain glued to the same frontispiece. You see them in the stacks, solitary figures far from Planet Earth, or grazing through the book carts Gloss puts out all year round in the adjacent parking lot. (This is his Filene's Basement, where books that don't move go there for as low as a buck.)

There's the man who declared, "I've been looking for this for years!" when he found a brochure titled "Coconuts and Constipation." There's Nelson Kiang, a distinguished professor emeritus at Harvard Medical School and MIT who bought his first book there in 1955. Kiang sends books -- 20,000 and counting -- to Fudan University in Shanghai, where he helped establish its Center for American Studies.

The engine room of the Brattle is its basement. Fresh stock is the lifeblood of the place. Cartons of books keep coming like the brooms in "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," stacked to the ceiling until they go upstairs.

That's why Gloss is often on the road three days a week to eyeball what people want to sell. What drives him is the hunt. He never knows what he's going to find. Last Thursday, he motored to New Hampshire to eyeball a 35,000-book collection and found nothing he liked. The next day he came upon an original page of the Gutenberg Bible.

The man has learned to fit more than 1,500 books in his Chevy Suburban. It's hard work, so the first two questions he asks job applicants are not their take on the Transcendentalists but rather: Do you have any football injuries? How is your back?

"You're carrying down 1,000 books from a fifth-floor walk-up in 95-degree heat," he says. "It's incredibly demanding."

Gloss survives because he owns his building and the parking lot. Were he renting, he'd be another downtown ghost.

"Within the next five to seven years, 75 percent of used bookstores will be gone," he says. "It's the real estate and the Internet. What you pay me for is to gather the books together. The Internet does that incredibly efficiently."

Some day, the Brattle Book Shop will be history -- neither of Gloss's daughters is interested in running it -- but no time soon. Gloss is offensively healthy and pledges, "I'll retire the day after I die."

So no Brattle bathos for now. Just drop by the place. Try to leave without a book under your arm. I dare you.

Sam Allis can be reached at allis@globe.com.

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