Local obituary: Hillel Stavis, 78, founder of Harvard Square’s WordsWorth Books and Curious George store

Local Obituaries

Hillel Stavis died suddenly Friday, Oct. 20, 2023, in Eaton, New Hampshire.

  • The Cambridge story of Curious George, the resident scamp of Harvard Square

Hillel Stavis, former proprietor of now legendary WordsWorth Books of Harvard Square in Cambridge, Mass., died suddenly Friday, October 20, 2023, in Eaton, N.H. He was 78.

For nearly 30 years his ambitious, innovative approach to bookselling made WordsWorth a go-to destination for book lovers the world over. At its peak in the 1980s WordsWorth was the highest grossing bookstore per square foot in the nation. In the days before big-box chains, online shopping and ebooks, WordsWorth grew to become the quintessential independent bookstore based on its enormous inventory, long hours and frequent author signings. Most importantly, Stavis was the first to offer his entire inventory discounted from the publishers’ price.

Stavis was born July 1, 1945, in Boston, before his family finally settled in Brookline, Mass. After graduating from Brookline High School, he earned his college degree in political science at McGill University in Montreal. He joined the newly formed Peace Corp following college, teaching science in Kenya as part of the first generation of volunteers. Before returning to the States, he spent a year in Paris, studying medicine. By the time Stavis returned to Boston, he spoke both French and Swahili.

Several years of apprenticeship at bookstores in Boston and New York led Stavis to open his own store in Cambridge. In 1975 he found the site he would occupy for the next three decades at 30 Brattle Street in Harvard Square. Many hours of counting passersby at that location convinced him that he had found the ideal spot. WordsWorth Books quickly established itself as one of the preeminent independent bookstores in the Boston area.

During the store’s best years, before online shopping began to cut into sales, WordsWorth averaged selling 3,000 books per day. Shoppers could be seen shivering in line outside the store during the holiday season waiting for WordsWorth’s 8:30 a.m. opening. Donna T. Friedman, Stavis’ wife and the store’s long-serving principal buyer, guessed that he was responsible for selling more than 20 million books over his career, likely more than any bookseller in New England history.

Success with WordsWorth led Stavis to several related businesses. Owing to a close relationship with his Cambridge neighbor Margret Rey, the creator of Curious George, Stavis and his wife opened Curious George Goes to WordsWorth, which operated at 1 JFK Street from 1996 to 2011. The store featured children’s books and toys and is remembered for the throngs that appeared at special midnight openings on the release day of new Harry Potter books.

In 1985, Stavis and partner Glen Legere designed a digital inventory system for bookstores, WordStock. Marketed nationwide, it was the first such system available. Many bookstores still use the software. Technology, however, also spelled the end of WordsWorth. The spread of large national chain stores, coupled with the rise of Amazon, upended the entire industry leading to WordWorth’s closing in October 2004. Curious George finally closed in 2011.

Stavis’ near photographic memory made him an expert in a wide range of subjects. He was a lifelong cinephile, dog lover and a much-appreciated cook. For many years, Stavis volunteered with the Cambridge Public School Volunteer program. Stavis’ special interests also included passionate support for Jewish causes and the State of Israel, and work on his 1820s farmhouse in Eaton, N.H. Stavis was at his Eaton home when he suffered heart failure.

Stavis was predeceased by brother Eugene Stavis, his father Samuel Stavis and his mother Sylvia Citron Stavis. He is survived by his wife Donna; son Myles Thayer Samuel (Brittany Knotts), all of Arlington, Mass.; daughter Lily Jane (John Shea) of Merrimac, Mass.; sister Laurel Stavis of W. Lebanon, N.H.; and nephew Steven Harper of White River Junction, Vt.

Contributions in Hillel’s memory may be made to Greater Boston Food Bank or MSPCA-Angell.

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