Arts and Leisure

James Fields and the Old Corner Bookstore

In the middle of the 18th century, visitors to the Old Corner Bookstore would find James Thomas Fields laughing and talking with the pre-eminent authors of the day.

James Fields

James Fields

Fields’ charm and literary instincts had transformed the old bookstore into what one admirer called the ‘hub of the Hub.’

James Fields

The son of a sea captain, James Fields was born in Portsmouth, N.H. in 1817. His father died when he was three. At 14 he went to work at the Old Corner Bookstore in Boston as an apprentice to a publisher. He made some waves at 20 when he delivered a poem he’d written to a library association.

Fields became the preeminent publisher in his day, bringing quality American literature to the world. He was an outgoing, charming man with a nose for talent and an ability to win the loyalty of his authors. He published Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Henry Wadsworth LongfellowJames Russell LowellHenry David ThoreauMark Twain, and John Greenleaf Whittier.

His publishing company, Ticknor and Fields, owned the Old Corner Bookstore, and authors would drop by once or twice a week to chat. Hawthorne especially liked the Old Corner Bookstore. There he had a chair in a secluded nook and would sit for hours, dreaming happily.

Old Corner Bookstore, 1903

Old Corner Bookstore, 1903

Big and Jovial

James Fields was called ‘the shrewdest of publishers and the kindest of men. He was the wire that conducted the lightning so that it never struck amiss.’ He once said he could guess which book a customer would buy within 10 minutes of entering the bookstore.

Critic Van Wyck Brooks described Fields in his element: “James T. Fields, a man of letters in his own right, was a big, jovial creature, always dressed in Scotch tweeds, with a full beard, abundant hair, keen, twinkling eyes and a hearty manner. The Old Corner Bookstore in Washington Street, where Fields sat behind his green curtain, laughing and manufacturing reputations, was already an institution.”

Fields died in 1881, and the Old Corner Bookstore would continue as a bookstore or publishing house until it threatened with demolition in 1960. It was rescued, became the Globe Corner Bookstore specializing in travel books. Then it evolved — rather, devolved — into a jewelry store and now a Chipotle Mexican Grill.


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