After 161 years of business, Schoenhof’s Foreign Books in Cambridge, Massachusetts, will close in less than two months.
It is the end of an era for the oldest and largest bookstore in the United States that sold just foreign language books. High rents in Harvard Square and online booksellers made it tough for Schoenhof’s to continue.
For years, hundreds of miles away, I had ordered books over the phone from Schoenhof’s as a teacher of German and as a member of many German book clubs. I met a fellow German teacher at a language retreat 15 years ago. We became friends, and she invited me to visit her in Massachusetts. She also set me up on a blind date that was so bad that I could only laugh after it was over.
I was all set to take a train back to Baltimore when I noticed Michelle’s book bag. “Oh, Schoenhof’s,” I said. “I’ve always wanted to go there.”
In less than an hour, we did. I was a little underwhelmed. Schoenhof’s was smaller than I expected. I was hoping to order a latte, but there was no coffee bar!
But there were plenty of books in plenty of languages and dozens of interesting people reading and purchasing them on that summer afternoon when I had told myself that if love were in the air, I would need to find it somewhere other than Massachusetts.
Except that it soon stared me in the face!
Working as a cashier at Schoenhof’s ground floor that afternoon was a young man. I turned to Michelle and said, “That guy is the most gorgeous person I have ever seen in my life, man or woman.” She encouraged me to speak to him. I told Michelle that my voice would probably crack. Besides, I didn’t think he was gay.
Michelle literally pushed me in the direction of the guy. I spoke. My voice cracked. He had long hair. I told him I was growing mine. He mentioned that he was studying Celtic languages at Harvard. I told him I was fascinated by Celtic languages even though I knew very little about them! I introduced him to Michelle and as casually as I could and said that I would probably be visiting her again in the next few months.
The next day, I went back. The Celtic scholar was again working the cash register. I told him I was going back to Baltimore and gave him my email.
A few days later, I desperately needed to order a book from Schoenhof’s. The Celtic scholar answered, but told me he had many customers.
I went back outside, determined to create the finest garden in Baltimore. Then he called back. I’m going to make a long story short: we’ve been together ever since.
So a thousand thanks to Schoenhof’s, to language nerds, to men and women who love different cultures, to my friend Michelle, to the Harvard Celtic department, to my husband and to our gorgeous daughter who was born seven years ago this May. We married in one of the few states at the time that let us become a legal couple the year before Ellen was born.
It doesn’t just happen in the movies!