Freedom, Equality, & Publishing the Garrity Decision: A Conversation with Bookseller Marshall Smith
June 26, 2014
By Tom Hallock
I first became manager of Coolidge Corner’s Paperback Booksmith (now the Brookline Booksmith) back in 1978, just four years after Judge W. Arthur Garrity’s historic decision to integrate the Boston School District through the “forced busing” of students, as it later became known. It was a time when the fallout over that decision was still shaking the communities of Boston, and a time I revisited when Beacon first published Michael Patrick MacDonald’s All Souls, a powerful account of what it was like to be a young man growing up in Southie during the time when busing came to that neighborhood.
One of my first acts as a new manager was to clean out the store, and I remember coming across several boxes of pamphlets of the Garrity Decision that the store’s owner Marshall Smith had evidently published. I was always intrigued that his idea of being a bookseller was broad enough to include such an activity. Marshall is an entrepreneur to the core, a legend in the bookselling business. The Paperback Booksmith chain that he founded grew to cover the entire New England region, and Marshall went on to found several other local business ventures, all while staying closely involved in the operations of his Brookline flagship store. As the 40th anniversary of the Garrity Decision approached, I decided to give Marshall a call and finally get the backstory on why he felt it necessary to publish the decision on his own.
I spoke to Marshall a few days before the anniversary, as Boston was once more revisiting the complicated, troubled legacy of Tallulah Morgan et al. v. James Hennigan, otherwise known as the Garrity Decision.
TH: What caused you to decide to print the Garrity Decision?
MS: Well, it’s a little complicated, but when the decision came down it really was divisive in the community. The school system was deeply segregated. And I think a large part of the population was very pleased with that. Then the busing started, which introduced a whole series of problems—physical attacks, stones thrown at the buses—and questions were being raised: “Why do it? Why bus black kids into South Boston?” When the violence started, I started to think, “Well, maybe the decision wasn’t the right way to go.”
One of the reasons people said the schools were segregated was that the real estate was segregated, that there was a very clear division between where the blacks lived and where everybody else lived, and that was the way the city should approach the problem, from the real estate point of view and not from the schools. Then somebody said, “Well, why don’t you read Judge Garrity’s decision?”
So I got a copy, and the amazing thing, what really was the primary impetus in publishing it, was that Judge Garrity sent out his people to analyze what was going on, and found that the school committee was already busing. If a white school was overcrowded, they would bus kids from the white school past black schools that had lots of openings to other white schools. And if by any chance a black school was overcrowded, they would bus those kids from a black school here to a black school in a different part of the city.
So busing had been going on, but the busing was designed to keep the idea of segregation intact completely. And I just thought that was awful. It’s in the summary of the decision, I think in the first ten pages. I don’t think even now that part of the decision was made clear to the public. Everybody focused on the problems it created and not where the problems came from.
TH: Did you understand bookselling as some kind of social enterprise? And are there certain civic responsibilities that a bookseller has? How did you understand your role in the community that way?
MS: I think that’s exactly where I was coming from. I had been in New York City, working on Wall Street with a job that was very interesting. I was doing research in various industries. Then I decided that I really wanted to do something that made some sort of social contribution. But I was a businessman. Combining literature and business is just exactly what a bookstore does, and what a publishing company does.
TH: Did you have any customer reaction to publishing the Garrity decision?
MS: We printed 10,000 copies and sold, I believe, almost all of them, primarily to law schools. When the word got out, law schools would buy enough for their students in whatever class they wanted to talk about it with. So I think it had some obviously very small impact, but I think a lot of people got to see it.
As our conversation ranged over these topics of freedom, equality, and individual responsibility, I was reminded of two booksellers I had met in Beijing when I lived there in the early 90s, long after I had left the Booksmith and made my own first forays into book publishing. They owned a gorgeous independent bookstore, The San Wei (Three Flavors) Bookstore, which was named after a school the writer Lu Xun attended. The San Wei was one of the few independent bookstores in Beijing—and indeed all of China—at the time. The owners were survivors of the Cultural Revolution, and had been imprisoned for much of it. When I asked why they decided to start a bookstore, they said, “So people are exposed to different ideas, and to more information about the world. So that something like the Cultural Revolution never happens again.”
I saw a kinship in their ideas and Marshall’s, and a refreshing affirmation of the deeper role that those of us in publishing and bookselling can play in our communities.
Tom Hallock is Associate Publisher of Beacon Press.