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Post-election Boston blues

Travel Writing

This article was first published in the Times Online, on November 09, 2004

After 25 years of running The Travel Bookshop in west London, Sarah Anderson sold up and has taken off around the world with books for company. In her latest exclusive dispatch for Times Online, Sarah writes an e-mail from Boston.

A flat and depressing feeling now that the election is over, but as I wandered around Cambridge the buildings of Harvard and Radcliffe looked reassuringly solid in these uncertain times.

The Peabody Museum (11 Divinity Avenue) had a Lewis and Clark exhibit showing some of the artefacts that the Indians traded with them, including a necklace of bear’s teeth which was discovered in the museum’s basement two years ago. The museum closed and the lights went out and I was nearly locked in the ladies room as I was about to go and see its famous collection of glass flowers. I wouldn’t have fancied a night alone in the Peabody thinking of the literary whodunnit The Dante Club by Matthew Pearl(Random House 2004), about a series of murders in the 19th century inspired by Dante’s Inferno. In it, Dr Oliver Wendell Holmes bemoans the “vast front showroom of Ticknor and Fields. Like the Jews of old at the Second  Temple remembering the glories it replaced Dr Holmes could not help resisting the oiled and polished glare and smuggling in his sensory recall of the musty quarters of the Old Corner Bookstore.”

Fortunately Cambridge does still have some independent bookshops. The Harvard Bookstore (1256 Massachusetts Avenue 617 661 1515) was started in 1932 by the father of present owner, Frank Kramer. Helpful and friendly staff helped me find literature set in Boston. Dennis Lehane‘s Mystic River (2001) was made into a film starring Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Kevin Bacon and Laura Linney. The three guys had been friends as boys but when a strange car pulls into the street, one boy gets in and their lives are changed for ever – a murder as adults relinks them.

Mysteries do tend to be very place specific – Jane Langton sets the Homer Kelly mysteries in the area and Robert B. Parker‘s detective Spenser, whose girlfriend Susan is a therapist, has Boston and the surrounding areas as his patch.

Cambridge also has its own travel bookshop, the Globe Corner Bookstore (28 Church Street 617 497 6277), owned by Harriet Carrier and her husband. It was started in the early 1980s and is arranged by country – nostalgic echoes of Notting Hill.

With a limited amount of time it helps enormously to be told about cafes and restaurants. I was lucky to be taken to lunch at Harvest (44 Brattle St 617 868 2255), a traditional Cambridge institution with white tablecloths just off Harvard Square. The roasted Nesenkeag beet salad with candied walnuts and goats’ cheese was delicious. The rabbit confit salad was described as “excellent” by my dining companion.

In Robert B. Parker’s Sudden Mischief (1999), Spenser and Susan dine at Chez Henri (1 Shepard Street 354 8980), “a nice informal room, open and high ceilinged, with a plate-glass window across the front that looked out on Shepard Street”. However, the Rough Guide says that with its no reservations policy you can wait for an hour for a table – even late at night. I didn’t get in.

“There are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as Afternoon Tea”, (Portrait of a Lady by Henry James 1881) and tea at the Boston Athenæum (102 Beacon Street 617 227 0270), for members and their guests only, was laid out at a long table with an old lady sitting behind three silver tea pots. I chose the special Boston Hu-Kwa tea – tepid but tasty. Tea with Miss Rose by Elizabeth W. Driscoll and Elaine Negroponte (Mount Vernon Press 2002) extols the merits of tea and publishes the sought after and closely guarded secret of how to make broccoli sandwiches. The Boston Athenæum was founded in 1807 as a membership library and in its day had John Quincy Adams, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Amy Lowell and Longfellow as members. It now has around 600,000 volumes of open-shelved books and a reading room reminiscent of the London Library in St James’ Square. It looks over a cemetery where Paul Revere is buried. 

Concord is about 15 miles from the centre of Boston. At the Concord Museum (200 Lexington Road, 978 369 9763) there was an exhibition of American Writers at Home. Many lived in Concord at various times, including Louisa May Alcott, author of Little Women, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Thoreau. Alcott’s father, Bronson Alcott, was a progressive educationalist and had his School of Philosophy next to Orchard House (399 Lexington Road), where the family lived for 20 years. Upstairs on the Square (91 Winthrop Street, Cambridge 617 864 1933), with its friendly bar and elaborate but not-over-the-top decor and interesting menu with lots of fish, was a welcome end to the day, and my varied experiences in Boston left me wanting more time here. As Henry James commented in The Bostonians, “Boston especially was strewn with surprises.”

Further reading

Time Out Boston (2004)

Rough Guide Boston (2004)

Zagat Boston Restaurants (2004/5)

Walk Boston ed. Robert Sloane (AMC Books, 2003)

Writers Explore 201st Century Boston ed. Emily Hiestand & Aude Zellman  (Beacon 150, 2004)