On a side street not far from the center of Harvard Square stands a small bookshop you could pass without noticing. If you did, you would be passing an outstanding monument to 20th Century poetry, a monument that poetry aficionados from across the country and around the world hurry to Cambridge to visit. At 85 years the Grolier Bookshop is not only the oldest bookstore dedicated to poetry in the nation, but the fact that it is dedicated solely to poetry probably does amaze you.
Yet historic as it may be, the Grolier almost didn’t survive.
The struggle to keep it going
Seven years ago, the second owner, Louisa Solano, had valiantly and single-handedly worked to keep the store going since she bought it in 1972 from the original owner, Gordon Cairnie. 2006 was a time of great upheaval in the bookstore business as online competitors began to eat into the profits of giant chains as well as local bookstores. The Grolier was losing money, but Louisa held on as long as she could. Yet it looked as though the shop would go into bankruptcy.
Then up stepped another hero. Ifeanyi Menkiti is a professor of philosophy at Wellesley College. He had not only never owned a retail store, he had never thought to own one. But in addition to his academic life, Dr. Menkiti is a poet. As a young man from Nigeria he came to this country to study philosophy at Pomona College in California. While there he took a course in poetry and became deeply enthusiastic about Ezra Pound.
From California he followed his academic pursuits to Harvard, and during those years came to know the original owner and fell in love with the shop’s ambiance and heritage, with its old couch in the tiny space. Here was a place where poets from T.S. Eliot and e.e. cummings to Robert Lowell, John Asbury and Adrienne Rich had hung out in their day. And he had watched Solano’s valiant efforts to keep the place going. He knew firsthand how much the shop meant to the poetry community. “I couldn’t see it close,” he says.
So in 2006, knowing he had no experience in retail, he purchased a shop that was falling into serious debt. “I thought to myself, I have my salary at Wellesley to fall back on, but I knew I needed more. The first thing I did,” he says, “was to hire someone who could help me get started.”
The Will and Support to Keep It Going
That person turned out to be Daniel Wuenschel, “who really helped out in the beginning.” More recently he has hired Elizabeth Doran, who along with Menkiti’s wife, Carol Menkiti, run the shop on a daily basis. Mentiki named many area and national known poets who have been supportive as he has struggled to keep the shop running, including Robert Pinsky, David Ferry, Frank Bidart, Fred Marchant and Dan Chaisson.
Menkiti was at first really surprised at what it took to keep in the enterprise running. “There were so many details of money, stock and employees that I was surprised to encounter. I thought what did I get myself into.”
Though the store has somewhat stabilized as Mentiki has put his own resources into the saving it. And he finds seeing the reaction of his customers is the most satisfying part of keeping the shop alive. “I remember a young woman who spent three hours browsing, though she left without buying a thing. But how do you quantify watching someone avidly enjoying poetry. It’s the old struggle of cash register against nurture.” It’s also Mentiki’s belief in the Ibo-African expression ani malu, “Let the earth bear witness,” which to Mentiki also evokes the social ceremonies and places which make speech and celebration possible – places like the Grolier. As one of his poems, “Of Altair, the Bright Light” says, speaking of light:
is this then the basis
of our genuflections?
maybe, the basis is not for you
or for me to decipher,
but for you and for me
to remember and not to forget.
For Mentiki, the author of two books of poetry: Before a Common Soil and Of Altair, The Bright Light, the Grolier is a primary way of remembering.
Mentiki speculates that the poetry business has grown more difficult not only because of the online competition but because of the proliferation of books. “Over the last twenty years MFA programs have turned out more and more poets and over the country more and more people have started publishing businesses. It’s led to a fragmentation for the poetry audience, and a major problem in keeping inventory current in a small store.”
Nevertheless, young people support the story, knowing it is not only a place they can gain a wider knowledge of poetry but knowing it is also a potential outlet eventually for their own work.
The Grolier’s new venture
The Grolier is also supporting poetry in another way – by publishing books in two categories, first, a discovery of new poets and the second, the publication of established poets. Here are winners of the Grolier Discovery Award:
- Some Far Country by Partridge Bsowell
- All Time Acceptable by Spring Berman
- Incommunicado by Keith O’Shaughnessy
And here are the books by established poets:
- Dark Energy by Frederich Feirstein
- So Spoke Penelope by Tino Villanuva
According to Menkiti the awards are to encourage poetry that deals with big subjects, with ideas that bring the world together. The books can be ordered from the Grolier.
Here’s to looking at literary history
The next time you’re in the Grolier – or the first time you’re there – crane your neck to look above the tall bookcases by the door. There you’ll see many vintage photos where you may recognize many of the shops famous patrons from the past.
But there’s one photo you won’t find displayed. It’s a full frontal nude of Allen Ginsburg by the famous photographer Elsa Dorfman. Menkiti believes it will probably see public light in a book being written by the German author Michael Hein. With some input by the American writer Richard Connelly, Hein is writing a history of the Grolier.
Didn’t we mention earlier that the Grolier is known worldwide?
If you’ve never been to this landmark, check it out. The address is 6 Plympton Street, Cambridge.