GUEST COMMENTARY: Adventures in volunteering – Wicked Local

I noticed a “Volunteers Wanted” sign when I paid a visit in early 2020 to the Bryn Mawr Book Store in Huron Village, Cambridge. The idea intrigued me – I was a retired Boston Globe librarian in search of something meaningful to do with my spare time. This institution, an independent non-profit that supports but is not controlled by Bryn Mawr College, was certainly worthy of my help. In my opinion, it has one of the best used-book collections around. When a map was made of the store we counted nearly 400 subject categories, including gardening, travel, history, memoirs, science fiction, mysteries, philosophy, poetry and children’s books. The hundreds of rare editions stored in the basement (available through online bookseller ABE Books) are mailed all over the world.
Holly, a former Globe colleague and bookstore volunteer, gave me a tour of the building. Outside she pointed to a large section of the exterior that needed repair. Damaged sheet metal covered rotted plywood, and a wide “dollar book cupboard,” with its heavy rotted doors, was crying out for attention. The facade was covered with unattractive pinkish tan paint.
I was not new to repairs and renovations – I have done extensive work on the homes that I have lived in, installing blue-board and doing the finish carpentry in our kitchens and baths.
2021 arrived and I came up with a plan to brighten up the store exterior. First an unsightly and no longer needed yellow awning was taken down. I painted a watercolor picture of what I thought the façade could look like and presented it to the bookstore’s governing board. The president, Anne Dane, was very supportive, and the other members soon agreed (Our treasurer said, “Yes, by all means, rock and roll!”). I knew I could do the job for very little expense, as my labor would be free.
Demolition was somewhat easy and took about a day or two. When the wall was down to the studs I installed insulation under resin-coated MDO (medium density overlay) plywood, and used hard meranti wood for the trim. Careful choices of weather stripping and caulking combat future water damage.
Rebuilding the dollar cupboard took more time – its size was reduced and the doors’ trim fashioned to make them appear smaller. A long “eyebrow” projection above the doors keeps the rain away.
My new section of the façade complemented a nicely-done existing section on Standish Street, from which I borrowed my design. It needed a little repair and mortar work.
Choosing a new wall color scheme required a good deal of consideration and some sleepless hours. The store’s signs incorporate some variation of blue and so we agreed upon a nice light blue for the body and a darker blue-gray for the cement panels at the base of the walls. Passers-by commented on my work, usually expressing approval.
Once the store was painted it seemed necessary to redo two of the store’s charming signs, colored bold blue with golden yellow letters. They were painted years ago, and the painter used a font employed by Bryn Mawr College. I used tracing paper to copy the letters, and carbon paper to transfer those letters onto new MDO plywood.
I had asked Arthur from Charlestown to help with the heavy plywood on a scorching hot Sunday morning, and Michael from Cambridge to touch up the signs (first installed in 1997) high above the ground.
I feel good sitting on a bench across the street, in front of the new Formaggio Kitchen store, viewing the final result.
The Bryn Mawr Book Store began business 50 years ago, replacing an old barber shop. This anniversary was a catalyst for my efforts. (The store was preceded by an annual Bryn Mawr Book Sale begun in May 1959 – one of its venues was Harvard’s Memorial Hall). When Anne told me that the planned celebration party would be postponed, I laughingly replied, “This pandemic is making me sick!” We are looking forward to having it in the spring.
Richard Pennington, a resident of Hillside Terrace in Belmont, is the author of “Low Art Tile – John Gardner Low & the Artists of the Boston’s Gilded Age.