Commonwealth Books has a reputation in Boston for its varied selection of old and used books, with over 50,000 titles, covering five hundred years of literary history. The store has been known to stock everything from paperbacks, to first editions of the works of Benjamin Franklin, to thirteenth century manuscript leaves. Commonwealth is also known for its ephemera—in particular, a collection of prints, engravings, and antique maps.
Proprietor Joseph Phillips founded Commonwealth Books in 1993. The store’s original location was on Boylston, facing the Common. In 2010, however, the shop was moved to the historic Spring Lane, one of Boston’s oldest streets. For much of its history, Commonwealth Books maintained an annex in the basement of the historic Old South Meeting House, where Benjamin Franklin was baptized. The outpost was forced to close in 2015.
In 2006, the independent publisher Black Widow Books was added to Commonwealth Books, specializing in poetry, works in translation, and critical editions of many of the major figures in the Dada and Surrealist Movements. Phillips founded the press to combat his frustration at the lack of good editions or translations of his favorite French poetry, modeling the hybrid bookstore/press on San Francisco’s City Lights Bookstore. Today, the press has over sixty titles in print, all of which are available at the store.
Commonwealth Books is open every day of the year, save Thanksgiving and Christmas Day.