Boston Insider

Cobblestones and characters

Novelist Robin Cook walks past John Kerry's house and introduces the shop owners of Beacon Hill

Email|Print| Text size + By Michael S. Rosenwald
Globe Staff / July 25, 2004

John Kerry lives here, up a steep hill on a slanted, pocked road, in a corner town house in Louisburg Square, the most exclusive address in Boston's most exclusive and quaint neighborhood. The sidewalks are brick here, and the door knockers are brass.

Robin Cook, author of more than 20 novels, including such medical thrillers as "Coma," lives here too, across the park in a mini-palace that could certainly substitute as a museum of 19th-century architecture and artifacts. Before he bought the place in 1977 -- way before -- it belonged to William Dean Howells. Louisa May Alcott lived up the road, at No. 10.

Know this about Louisburg Square when you're sniffing around: Cook put up his US flag first; Kerry was second. But Kerry is so far the first and only resident to have the Secret Service posted outside. The agents are there to protect the man who could be president, but their heavily armed presence has not yet caused residents to totally sour on the place.

"The way we look at it, the probability of muggings goes down," Cook says, "but the probability of car bombs goes up. So it's a wash."

He loves the neighborhood because tucked down tree-lined streets are markets and plumbers and hardware stores, and the same guys who sit on the same stoops every day. There are playgrounds. People pick up after their dogs. Down the hill on Charles Street are exquisite restaurants, wine stores, antique shops, a video rental joint, an old-fashioned pharmacy, cafes, a fruit stand, and people who stop and say hello in such a way as to make a person forget that Boston is supposed to be stodgy and rude.

"This place has the entire city at its fingertips," Cook says, walking down to Charles Street. Indeed, the Common and the Public Garden are just steps away. Cross the park and you're in Downtown Crossing, the Financial District, Government Center. Posh Newbury Street is a few blocks away. Walk down Commonwealth Avenue, through the Back Bay, and you'll hit the Fenway, near Fenway Park. "The city is actually built around Beacon Hill," Cook says.

We pass Beacon Hill Wine and Spirits, which specializes in hard-to-find wines, and head into Gary Drug. "Is Herman here?" Cook asks a clerk. Of course he's here -- somewhere. Gary Drug, on Charles Street since 1972, is the center of Herman Greenfield's world. "Herman doesn't dress up," Cook says. "He wears what he wears. But he gives the kind of service that pharmacists used to give." Herman, looking a bit ragged, with thinning gray hair, emerges from behind the counter. "I used to be 6-foot-2 with blond hair and blue eyes, and now look what happened in 30 years," he says.

"I think the apartments around here have been painted so many times that they are a lot smaller than they used to be," says Dick Gurnon, and he would know. He opened Charles Street Supply 52 years ago. The place burned down once, but survived the chainstores through service so neighborly that if you're locked out of your house, they will help you get in. "I remember Eisenhower came down thisstreet, but the street was running the other way, that's how long ago it was," Gurnon recounts. Kerry stops in to the store when he's around.

We continue down Charles Street, past The Paramount, where breakfast and lunch is served cafeteria-style, and where there's an outside chance of seeing Jay Leno, who misses the steak tips from his Boston days.

Like many Beacon Hill residents, Cook is an antiques buff. Just as residents rely on neighborhood markets for food, prescriptions, and hardware, they rely on local antique stores to decorate their homes. We turn onto Chestnut Street and enter one of Cook's favorite shops: Gallagher-Christopher Antiques, which dabbles in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. "I hope Robin buys a couple more houses," says owner Christopher Mizeski.

"I do have a need for a single sconce," Cook tells him. "And I know it's hard to find. But it has to be either nickel or chrome or platinum."

"Nothing we can't help you with," Mizeski replies.

There were other places to go, but a torrential rainstorm struck and Cook had to get home to write. Of course, there's the Massachusetts State House, where Paul Revere and Sons covered the original wooden dome with copper. On the way are two gems: Mount Vernon Street, which Henry James called the most beautiful street in the United States; and Acorn Street, a cobblestoned block that is supposedly the most photographed street in America. And it would be a big mistake to miss the Boston Athenaeum, one of the nation's oldest independent libraries and possibly the most peaceful place in the city.

Michael S. Rosenwald can be reached at

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