Marshall Smith, bookseller, entrepreneur and longtime co-owner of Brookline Booksmith, Brookline, Mass., died on May 10 at age 90.
Originally called Paperback Booksmith, Brookline Booksmith opened in 1961 and became the first of a chain in the Northeast that had 75 stores at its height. Smith also founded Videosmith, a chain of video rental stores that he sold in 1989; Learningsmith, founded in 1991, an educational multimedia company that had 87 stores at one point, many of which were affiliated with public radio stations (it closed in 1999); and Cybersmith, a cyber cafe, among several other ventures. Altogether he opened some 180 stores.
When Smith retired in 2019, he wrote in part about Brookline Booksmith, "We were always socially active, eager to learn and change. With Dana Brigham, who joined us as store manager over 30 years ago, we became Brookline Booksmith, a cultural center for the Town of Brookline and eventually the entire Greater Boston area. We knocked out Barnes & Noble, who opened a larger store less than two blocks from us; we faced up to Amazon who helped close 50% of the independent bookstores in the country--but not us."
Smith was active in politics and civil rights. He was chairman of the board of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, chairman of the Brookline Human Relations Commission (a precursor to the current Diversity & Inclusion Committee), an elected town meeting member in Brookline; the founder of a prison book program, a leader in solving food desert inequities in Dorchester, treasurer of Michael Dukakis's campaign for Governor, and publisher of Judge Garrity's ruling during the bussing crisis and the Celebration of Freedom, highlighting the great documents that form our country's civil rights.
He was contemplative and found solace on the dunes of the National Seashore in Truro, where he spent decades staring out to the great ocean, reading book after book, and contemplating the world's comings and goings. Always a visionary, he acquired the Wellfleet Marketplace and turned it into a vital community hub and, of course, adding a lovely book selection.
In an announcement by Brookline Booksmith, Jed Smith called his father "a great man, sweetheart, dad, son, brother, uncle, friend, creative spirit and legendary retail entrepreneur. Marshall absolutely loved the Booksmith, and what a gift to Brookline and our community. It was 1961 when he and Judy Smith decided that the burgeoning publication of serious literature, both fiction and non-fiction, in a paperback format, provided the opportunity to reach a whole new audience of potential readers. He left his Wall Street job when he was 29 years old and opened what they called the Paperback Booksmith....
"Marshall was one of the greatest readers of all time. For decades he would read three or four books at a time. It was quite astonishing. Two weeks before he passed, he was proud that he read Moby Dick... again--"It's 850 pages you know!"--while also reading a non-fiction account of early Boston leaders. On his reading stand today sits a Ken Follett novel open to page 699. Just 103 pages to go.
"Marshall leaves us saddened and appreciative. He was a gift to our community and left us the legacy of his creative spirit, the Brookline Booksmith. As he said when he retired, 'I'll see you all in the aisles.'
"Thank you, Marshall Smith--a creative man, civil rights activist, bold entrepreneur, family man, wonderful dad, caring partner and generous friend."