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Longtime owner keeps historic Brattle Book Shop on track

Posted by Emily Files  December 3, 2012 04:28 PM

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After 39 years at the helm at the Brattle Book Shop, Ken Gloss figures he must be doing something right in today’s topsy-turvy world of book selling.

“We have an awful lot of regulars,” he said of his antiquarian (old/used) bookstore. “We have one guy who calls in sick when he doesn’t come in.”

In an era when used books are easily found on the Internet, Brattle’s consistent flow of customers may be surprising.

“I could order [a book] online easily, but it’s looking for it that’s the fun part,” said Andrew Elder, a 32-year-old librarian at the University of Massachusetts in Boston who has been coming to the Brattle since he moved to the city in 2006.

Spend some time with Gloss, and he’ll provide some hints as to why customers like Elder keep coming back to browse, even when it’s not the most convenient way to buy a used book.

For one thing, Gloss himself relentlessly pursues and purchases collections of used books to provide a fresh and varied selection for customers. He makes daily trips out to estates selling off dusty hardcovers and paperbacks, some as common as the titles of author Jane Austen, some as rare as a first edition of The Federalist Papers. Gloss says he stocks between 100,000 and 125,000 books at a time, with prices ranging from $1 to $150,000.

He also markets on behalf of his store, speaking at libraries and historical societies. And he appears regularly on PBS’s Antiques Roadshow. Gloss says he does all of this because he doesn’t want to rely alone on the store’s long-standing reputation to bring in customers.

“One of the things I realized is that if you don’t work at [it] and just say, ‘gee, we’re really well-known,’ give it a year or two, [and] people forget real fast,” he said.

Gloss, 62, has spent his whole life in Massachusetts. He was born and raised in Dorchester, where, he insists his parents told him, his first word was “book.” He attended to the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, where he earned a degree in chemistry. It was after he finished college that he decided he would spend a year helping out at the store, which had been run by his father since 1949 (the year before Gloss was born).

“I was going to go to Wisconsin to get a doctoral degree in 1973, but my father wasn’t that well. And quite honestly, I needed a year off,” he said. “That year now is getting close to 40 years.”

Gloss has been married to his wife, Joyce Kosofsky, for almost as long (32 years). She has worked at the shop since before the two of them tied the knot, and has claimed the role of the store’s administrative workhorse, or the “Queen of All Things,” as she calls herself.

“He’s the face, I’m the brains,” Kosofsky jokes.

The store’s rich history makes it a tourist attraction. It opened in 1825 and was around for nearly 125 years before Gloss’s father took over. The store got its name from Brattle Street in Boston, where the store originally was located. Boston’s Brattle Street no longer exists, having been paved over by the construction of City Hall Plaza in the 1960s.

Since then, the store has bounced around different locations in the Downtown area. Between 1966 and 1968, it was on Washington Street. Gloss said the man who owned the building ran a card shop on the ground floor and sold elicit drugs on the upper floors.

“A lot of the people who frequented his businesses also bought books,” Gloss said.

According to Gloss, the owner got into some trouble and a judge told him that if he left town, they’d let things slide. So he sold the building quickly and Gloss’s father had to find a new home for the bookstore.

Today, the store sits on West Street, between Tremont and Washington streets in Downtown Boston. The vacant parking lot next to it serves as an outdoor wing to the store (weather permitting, of course). In fact, a building that once stood where the lot is now was one of the store’s previous locations before it went up in flames in 1980.

“It was a 150-year-old wooden building filled with books and it caught on fire and literally burned to the ground,” Gloss said.

But after people (including then-Mayor Kevin White) donated books, Gloss was able to re-open down the street within a month’s time.

In the meantime, he maintained ownership of the lot, and would eventually buy the building next to it (the store’s current location) when the owner decided to leave. He says owning rather than renting his store is one reason he’s been able to stay in business.

“If we didn’t own it, every two of three years we’d be dealing with a new lease,” said Gloss. “And as the area improves, we’d be asking ourselves if it was this one or the next one that was going to do us in.”

Another threat most small independent bookstores face is the possibility of a megastore like Barnes & Noble opening its doors nearby. But because of the unique selection of old and used books Brattle offers customers, Gloss said he would welcome that possibility with open arms.

“The best thing that could ever happen to us is if a Barnes & Noble moved in next door because we would complement them and they would bring in loads of people,” he said. “It wouldn’t be competition.”

Gloss said he would even welcome a group of used bookstores moving in on West Street. In fact, it’s kind of a dream of his to create something of a used bookstore neighborhood (a few, like Commonwealth Books, do exist around the area). He said while there’d certainly be some competition, overall he thinks everybody would probably help each other.

“If this street was all used and rare bookstores, it would be a magnet,” said Gloss. “If there was a large enough concentration, people would go out of their way to come here.”

Dreams aside, Gloss acknowledges the advance of technology has been making business tougher, whether it be the internet making used books more readily accessible online, or e-readers ensuring that there will be a lot fewer used books to find in the future.

“It’s a different time and it’s not going to go back,” he said. “Unless the power goes out 100 percent. Then we’ve got a whole lot of other things to worry about.”

View more pictures of Brattle Book Shop here. This article is being published under an arrangement between the Boston Globe and Emerson College.

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