It’s a weekday and just minutes after opening time at Papercuts Bookshop, but the shop is already bustling with customers. To anyone who’s grown to love the store, as I have, that’s no surprise. Located in the heart of Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood, Papercuts is home to an abundant, thoughtfully curated collection of books.
But it isn’t just the books that make the store such a draw. It has a warm, inviting ambience and a sweet-natured pup, Sammy, who roams about, pausing now and then to accept a pat or ear scratch from a customer. Also, it’s easy to get drawn into one of the shop’s several cozy nooks and lose track of time as you browse the shelves, immerse yourself in a book that’s caught your attention, or check out one or more of the one-of-a-kind gift items that are arrayed around the store.
But to my mind, what makes Papercuts especially welcoming is the staff. Even on the busy day of my visit, as they worked nonstop to stock books, ring up purchases, and carry out other tasks, the store’s employees were unfailingly friendly, constantly greeting customers and coming to the aid of those with questions.
Fostering this warm environment is Kate Layte, who founded Papercuts in 2014. Despite being as busy as every other staff member during my visit, she took time to speak with me about the store as she went about her work. Among other things, we talked about how the store has forged a strong connection to the community by serving as a hub for all manner of book lovers. “What other job would let you connect to people of all ages?” Layte observed.
She also noted that Papercuts has become part of Boston’s – and, more specifically, Jamaica Plain’s – long and storied literary history. Less than two miles away is Forest Hills Cemetery, where several notable writers, including poets Anne Sexton and e.e. cummings, are buried. Also, the first home that Sylvia Plath knew is just a half mile from the store. That connection to local writers continues to this day. As a Jamaica Plain-based author, I’m grateful that Papercuts stocks books by local writers and that the store has featured both Boston-area and national writers in store-sponsored events.
Papercuts has also made a significant effort to feature books that shed a more inclusive light on local history and other subjects. During my visit, Layte pointed out one such book, Black Walden, which explores the lives of formerly enslaved people who made lives for themselves in Walden Woods, a place that for many people, calls to mind only Henry David Thoreau and the book he’s most known for.
Like many other Boston-area booklovers, I was delighted when, in early 2020, Papercuts moved from its original location in Jamaica Plain, which was just 400 square feet, to a much larger space in the neighborhood. But Papercuts soon faced a major setback when, in March 2020, Covid forced the business to close for a period. By April, the store was in dire enough financial straits that it was at risk of ceasing operations. But Layte was determined to keep it going. Looking back on that time, she said, “I just wasn’t going to give up.”
She set up a GoFundMe campaign for Papercuts, and in just two weeks it raised more than $55,000, which was used to pay vendors, rent, utilities, and other expenses. “Everyone just stepped up,” Layte said. “I was so floored.”
But Covid wasn’t the only big challenge that Papercuts has had to face. In April 2022, two cars crashed into the front of the store, shattering windows, destroying books, and causing structural damage that, fortunately, wasn’t severe. Thankfully, because the store was empty at the time of the crash, no one sustained any injuries, and Papercuts was able to reopen not long after the incident. Today, a tire mark from one of the cars remains etched into the floor, serving both as a reminder of the crash and a testament to the store’s resilience.
Another testament to the store’s resilience is how busy it is on any given day, including the day I stopped by. During my visit, I had the pleasure of speaking to one of the many customers: Susan Hardy Brown, a visual artist and longtime resident of Jamaica Plain. She is also a longtime fan of Papercuts. “I have told Kate that it was the best thing to happen to JP since I’ve been here,” Brown said. “Especially now that she’s in the bigger space she can indulge herself in curating this amazing collection of books, and her passion just spills over to everything, not just the books. There seems to be something for everyone.” (Notably, Brown is more than just a devoted customer of Papercuts. For a time, she helped out at the store’s previous location, and some of her art has been featured at the business.)
The passion that Brown described is evident in every aspect of Papercuts. As for the experience of running the store, Layte said, “I wouldn’t trade it.”
Beth Castrodale is the award-winning author of three novels: Marion Hatley, In This Ground, and I Mean You No Harm. Her latest novel, The Inhabitants, will be released by Regal House Publishing in fall 2024.
Virginia Pye says
Terrific piece about a terrific institution. Such a fine bookshop and truly a cornerstone in the neighborhood. Thanks for sharing this, Beth!