Intercepting perspectives on what the Old Corner might be

Intercepting perspectives on what the Old Corner might be

Historic Boston Inc. has been working with the branding firm Other Tomorrows to understand the public’s perception of the 1718 Old Corner Bookstore as HBI prepares for a new generation of rehabilitation and interpretation of the four historic buildings that make up the complex we fondly call the “Old Corner.” Other Tomorrows insights are informing HBI’s rebranding of the Old Corner Bookstore as a location, and as a historic resource.  

In the spring of 2023, Other Tomorrows’ Jen Ashman, Nicole Nassif, and Lee Moreau took to the streets to see just what passersby thought of today’s Old Corner Bookstore. They conducted seventy-five sidewalk intercept surveys that stopped and asked passersby their opinions of the building. Additionally, their team took a more in-depth ethnographic approach in which they sat down for one-hour interviews with twenty-seven individuals that either lived, worked, or passed by the Old Corner nearly every day. 

The feedback revealed that there was a “spectrum of tension” when it came to this historic building, ranging from “revered to reviled.” For, while some appreciated the preservation of the building’s unique facade amid the highrises of downtown, others felt that the presence of a Chipotle restaurant at the ground floor retail level was incongruent with the building’s age and rich history. 

The team spoke of the homogenization of city centers across the U.S., with the beloved local character of a place being bought out and stripped away by corporate chain retail. A visitor remarked: “Atmosphere matters. The vibe. Without it I could be anywhere. I love that feeling of a place to discover.” While another said, “I love the juxtaposition of new and old; people feed off that and they see how society’s changing because of it.”

As the Freedom Trail historic sites incorporate lesser told stories of Boston’s working class and people of color over 400 years, Other Tomorrows discovered a desire among those surveyed to learn a more nuanced and inclusive story of the Old Corner and downtown Boston. One Downtown Crossing resident mused about the opportunity the Old Corner has to help amplify those voices: “Going into the past, reaching, linking hands, those stories being told. This is the eye of the city. We have become better people.” 

What Other Tomorrows concluded was that for many “history is only relevant when people can feel and be a part of it.” And while you have the opportunity to stop in for lunch, “Chipotle is fleeting; it’s not going to give you a story to hold on to.” The same is true of just walking by a historic building. Once it’s out of sight, it is often out of mind. Visitors to the Old Corner Bookstore and neighborhood residents and workers are craving an experience that is immersive, that gives them more to hold on to when they walk away and continue down the Freedom Trail.

Having a Chipotle in the Old Corner may not sit well with many, but the retailer’s valuable lease payments underwrite HBI’s work preserving historic buildings in many Boston neighborhoods. HBI might not have Comfort Kitchen at the Upham’s Corner Comfort Station or the renewed Fowler Clark Epstein Farm in Mattapan without the net revenue from rents paid at the Old Corner. But the public survey revealed a bittersweet truth in one resident’s candid observation: that “the charm of what [this] building could be is missing from it.” 

As for Historic Boston today, when people leave the Old Corner Bookstore, we would like them to have more to hold onto. Other Tomorrow’s data and information collection will inform the physical design, uses, and public engagement of downtown Boston’s oldest commercial buildings.  

Follow this newsletter and HBI’s social media for regular updates on this project’s planning.