5 Misconceptions about the Old Corner Bookstore

5 Misconceptions about the Old Corner Bookstore

As HBI sets its sights on rebranding and re-activating a new interpretive experience at the Old Corner Bookstore, we thought you might like to hear some of the intriguing misconceptions of this Freedom Trail landmark and Boston’s oldest commercial building in Boston. Without further adieu, here goes:

  • The “Old Corner Bookstore” is one  building. 

The low-rise brick complex at the corner of School and Washington Streets is actually four distinct buildings with six street addresses. What’s known as the “Old Corner Bookstore” – the gambrel-roofed building at the corner (283 Washington Street) was built in 1718 by apothecary Dr. Thomas Crease. Next door’s 277 Washington Street was built as the home of Andrew Cunningham, Jr. in 1728. In 1829, bookseller Timothy Carter obtained a lease for the Old Corner building and transformed it into the first bookshop to occupy the site, and also erected a brick extension that became today’s 5-7, and 11 School Street. HBI is examining how it might more accurately present the eras in which these four structures were built.   


  • Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women was published at the Old Corner Bookstore.

Ticknor and Fields’ publishers brought a number of beloved literary works to the world from the Old Corner Bookstore between 1830 and 1865, but Little Women was not one of them! James Fields’ infamously turned then-teacher Louisa May away, responding to some samples of her work in 1865 with this regrettable note: “Stick to your teaching; you can’t write.” Fields’ even went so far as to include $40 in her rejection for school supplies, saying she could repay him if she ever was successful. Three years, after Little Women (1868) was published by Roberts Brothers of Boston, Alcott sent Fields’ $40 with this note: 

Dear Mr. Fields, 

Once upon a time you lent me forty dollars, kindly saying I might return them when I had made ‘a pot of gold.’ As the miracle has been unexpectedly wrought I wish to fulfill my part of the bargain, and herewith repay my debt with many thanks.

Very truly yours

L.M. Alcott

No hard feelings:  Several of Louisa May Alcott’s short stories were published by Ticknor & Fields in the Atlantic Monthly, which became today’s Atlantic.


  • The Old Corner Bookstore was going to be demolished and turned into a parking garage.

The Old Corner Bookstore was indeed at risk of demolition in the 1960s as federal Urban Renewal dollars flooded the “new” Boston, and city fathers looked for any way to encourage reinvestment in the declining city. Several historic buildings were cleared to build the seven-story Pi Alley Parking Garage next to the Old Corner Bookstore in the late 1960s, but HBI has yet to find any evidence that those plans extended to the Old Corner Bookstore. It is more likely that, had a group of civic leaders not mobilized to buy and restore these ancient but derelict buildings in 1960, their fate would have been left to private development. The risk soon became myth, but the surrounding development pressures have never really gone away. 

1968 Pi Alley Garage construction


  • The Old Corner Bookstore is now the “Old Corner Chipotle.”

Almost daily, tour guides in downtown Boston stand before the Old Corner Bookstore and jokingly proclaim  “This is the oldest Chipotle in America!” And while we at HBI love a good joke, the tourism industry is missing some far better stories. Consider that this is downtown Boston’s oldest continuously operating commercial building and has housed drugs, books, cigars, tailors, pizzas, jewelry and, yes, burritos, over the course of its 305-year history. And what if you knew that the lease revenue from all the buildings’ tenants helps the non-profit owner Historic Boston Inc. restore historic buildings throughout the city of Boston? So, if in every jest there’s a truth, perhaps Boston’s tour guides might ask visitors, “How many times have you bought a burrito that supports historic preservation?”

  • Do you have a copy of Stephen King’s Holly?

Historic Boston Inc. receives one or two calls weekly from people inquiring whether the Old Corner Bookstore has this book or that. Not wishing to disappoint with the news that there is no bookstore here, we keep a short list of area new and used bookstores to help redirect their pursuit. Similarly, visitors often expect to find a bookstore when they arrive at the so-called Old Corner Bookstore building. Historic Boston recognizes that nothing really compares to experiencing a piece of history, and while we don’t expect that a bookstore will return to this corner soon, we are working to establish a unique visitor experience at the Old Corner Bookstore site that helps residents, visitors, and workers learn more about the rich history of this place over time and the city that has grown up around it.

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