Hillel StavisHillel Stavis: WordsWorth, Curious George

Hillel Stavis of Arlington, one of New England’s most successful booksellers for four decades as founder of the WordsWorth and Curious George bookstores in Cambridge plus several other businesses, died of a heart attack Friday, Oct. 20, in Eaton, N.H., at the age of 78.

Memorial contributions may be made to Greater Boston Food Bank or MSPCA-Angell.No public services are planned.

Stavis was predeceased by his brother, Eugene Stavis; his father, Samuel Stavis;and his mother, Sylvia Citron Stavis. He is survived by his wife, DonnaT. Friedman, son Myles Thayer Samuel and daughter-in-law Brittany Knotts, all of Arlington; daughter Lily Jane and her husband, John Shea, of Merrimac, Mass.; sister Laurel Stavis of West Lebanon, N.H.; and nephew Steven Harper of White River Junction, Vt.

Stavis was born July 1, 1945, in Boston, before his family settled in Brookline, Mass. After graduating from Brookline High School, he earned his bachelor’s degree in political science at McGill University in Montreal. He joined the newly formed Peace Corps, teaching science in Kenya; before returning to the United States, he spent a year in Paris, studying medicine. 

Also according to his obituary on Legacy.com, “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, it grew to become the quintessential independent bookstore based on its enormous inventory, long hours and frequent author signings. Most important, Stavis was the first to offer his entire inventory discounted from the publishers' price.

Several years of apprenticeship at bookstores in Boston and New York [had] 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 St. 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. 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.

Owing to a close relationship with Margret Rey, co-creator of [the beloved little monkey hero] Curious George, Stavis and Friedman opened Curious George Goes to WordsWorth, which operated at 1 JFK St. 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.

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 WordsWorth's closing in October 2004; Curious George finally closed in 2011.

His 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 Schools volunteer program. Special interests also included passionate support for Jewish causes and the State of Israel, and work on his 1820s farmhouse in Eaton, N.H.

Per the leading trade publication Publishers WeeklyStavis and Friedman also owned and operated Three Little Monkeys, a short-lived children’s store at the Mall at Chestnut Hill in Chestnut Hill, Mass.; WordsWorth Gifts in Harvard Square; and the Penguin Bookshop in Cambridge’s Central Square neighborhood, which stocked every Penguin book in print available in the U.S. and produced a mail-order Penguin catalogue.

PW also reported that 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.

According to his LinkedIn biography, Stavis spoke Italian, French and Swahili; he took graduate courses at Harvard University, studying international relations; and in March 2012 founded Embed Systems, a startup medical device company.

This article based on the three online sources mentioned in the article was published Monday, Oct. 30, 2023.