A Quaint & Curious Shop
A postcard from Bartevian’s in downtown Boston
By Max Larkin and Rebecca Panovka
Even unread American authors get gift shops: Bronson Alcott on a mug, Longfellow’s face on a pillow. But at Bartevian’s non-profit consignment, Edgar Allan Poe has received a commercial home in Boston that fits him uncommonly well.
Bartevian’s opened in 1910 on Boylston Street, on the first floor of a five-story office building overlooking Boston Common. There it remains, obscure behind a window-display collection of straw hats and a mannequin in vintage evening attire.
92-year-old Patricia Bartevian sits behind the counter, as greeter and sole proprietress. There is much buzzing-in to do: her non-profit tenants include Emerson’s 3-D printing team, the Innocence Project (which helps “kids who get into trouble with the law”), First Literacy, the Poe Foundation, and Copley Wolff Architects. This was her father’s vision for the building: that it be a charitable place downtown, for the people.
Pat lost Priscilla, her beloved sister, eight years ago. Before they ran the store, they sang and danced a double act under the name of the “Hickory Sisters”. Pat keeps a picture of Priscilla, looking rare and radiant in a black cocktail dress, on the counter next to a rack of Poe-branded soaps. The angels Priscilla painted on the ceiling are still up there.
It was Pat who took on the commercial side of the installation, care, and maintenance of Stefanie Rocknak’s new statue of Poe around the corner from Bartevian’s. There are a few more Poe tchotchkes up front — cartoon band-aids, skull-shaped piggybanks — that will pay for the statue’s upkeep. And Pat says that the Poe-curious, coming in from as far away as India and China, make up ninety percent of her customers these days.
But the literary bobble-heads are, in the end, the blandest things she’s selling. Further back a century’s worth of knickknacks — lost, forgotten, outdated — have come together in one place.
There are the art deco scarves from the 1930s alongside a wall of black-and-white VHS tapes. A Communist Party membership card stands out prominently, and a zither past its sesquicentennial (according to the tag). Egyptian archaeological fragments of dubious origin sit side-by-side with porcelain dog figurines, and a prodigious supply of healing crystals. Under Priscilla’s angels the walls are ringed with spooky ‘primitives’, oil paintings by the Bartevian family, like the work of a disturbed Bob Ross. Poe gets upstaged in his own gift shop.
Pat reminds you that her shop has always lured radio producers and documentarians; the TV magazine Chronicle has been three times. She’s very smooth, and eats a head of lettuce as she talks.
She likes Poe, but she loves conversation — about politics, why we’re here, and what we should be doing. “The soul comes to the earth-plane as a school,” she explains. “Every living thing on the planet is conscious — rocks, plants, animals — but only the human is self-conscious. He is given free will, and the karma that he builds up for himself as a result of what he says, does, and thinks is what he creates for himself, and for the future — many, many lifetimes after that.”
At some point, an older man comes a back door and disappears behind a grand red velvet curtain. “Robert!” Pat calls after him, adding that an archaeologist has found tablets in the Holy Land that say it was Judas, and not Jesus, died on the cross. “Talk about what the religions have done to screw up the history!,” she says. He replies: “I wonder what the news will do with that,” and trundles off.
Pat Bartevian hates vanity and corruption just as much as Poe did. She sees it in the story of the pyramids. They had been instruments of some ancient Atlantic wisdom, lost when some pharaoh came along and used them as his grave, not knowing what he did. Her poor writer, born here unhappily so long ago, still lives at Bartevian’s: a radiant soul, a charity case.