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Montage

Grolier Reincarnated

A venerable poetry bookshop makes a fresh start.

November-December 2006

Tucked into a single room behind a window in Harvard Square, the Grolier Poetry Book Shop is to the world of bookselling what La Sainte Chapelle is to Gothic architecture: small, unusual, and, to those who know to track it down, a jewel box. The shop, which saw only two managements from its founding in 1927 to this past spring, has managed to stay afloat for the last three decades with the unorthodox business plan of selling only poetry. Today, its one of only two all-poetry bookstores in the United States (the other is in Seattle) and a meeting point for literary neophytes and regulars alike. Rarity doesnt make for profit, though. The Grolier was teetering on the verge of bankruptcy when poet Ifeanyi Menkiti, Ph.D. 74, a philosophy professor at Wellesley College, bought the store in March to keep it from going under.

Named after sixteenth-century French bibliophile and collector Jean Grolier de Servires, the shop has been dubbed a poetry landmark by the Academy of American Poets and offers a literary home for both poets and readers. Not that theres much difference. The Grolier has served contributors to many of the anthologies it carries, with past patrons ranging from T.S. Eliot 10, E.E. Cummings 15, and Robert Lowell 39 to John Ashbery 50 and Adrienne Rich 51. Under the ownership of Louisa Solano, who took over in 1974, it has offered a reading series, an annual poetry prize, and a yearly reading of undergraduate poetry from several universities. Now, even as some professors direct their students to the Grolier rather than the Coop, many of the stores most enthusiastic supporters come from outside academia.

Poet and Wellesley philosophy professor Ifeanyi Menkiti, a native Nigerian, holds court in his new bookstore.
Photograph by Stu Rosner

Menkiti, a longtime Cantabrigian, has taught moral philosophy at Wellesley since 1973. The general imperatives he feels as a college professorbroadening his students perspectives and taking advantage of cultural proximityshape his priorities for the Grolier, too. Although his professorial responsibilities keep him from managing the stores day-to-day business, he plans to build up its collection of international poetry with as much intermingling as possible. I wasnt thinking of, Lets say today well have our little Indian enclave or little Chinese enclave, tomorrow our little African enclave, he explains. I think theres something wonderful about it all happening together. He hopes to extend the shops outreach programs by this same standard. It would be nice to see the poets of the world joining hands to do some things, he sayslike multinational readings or evenings of poetry with related ethnic food.

A large man with a rumbling voice and a quick laugh, Menkiti seems to find friends everywhere. His conversation is brisk and errant, and he likes to fill silences by reading or reciting a poem from memory. (I have to show you this, he says at one point, scrawling out a couple of lines from Ezra Pounds Pisan Cantos. I get excited like a little kid.) Menkiti, a native Nigerian, came to the United States to attend Pomona College, where he wrote a prizewinning senior thesis on Pound. (That has always intimidated me, Solano says, laughing.) Hoping to become a magazine journalist, Menkiti graduated from Columbias journalism school and then changed course, earning a masters degree in philosophy at New York University before heading to Harvard to study with John Rawls. In 1971, he published Affirmations, his first book of poetry; Of Altair, the Bright Light, his third collection, appeared last year. Poetry and political philosophy, both reaching toward aesthetic harmony of some sort, have never seemed contradictory, he says.

When Menkiti first walked into the Grolier as a graduate student in 1969, it was owned and run by Gordon Cairnie, a Canadian by birth, whose name overshadows the shops first half-century. Yet the Grolier wasnt his brainchild. Initially a sort of fine-edition bookstore, it was launched by Adrien Gambet 25, an avid and wealthy book collector; Cairnie soon joined to share in its management. Their partnership lasted only one awkward year, however: Gambet was something of a playboy, according to Solano, and liked to use the store for trysts, while Cairnie was a monogamous married Cantabrigian. When Gambet threw in the towel, Cairnie stayed on. And it was his conception that both future owners of the shop fell in love with.

There were books all around and there was an old couch, Menkiti remembers. (T.S. Eliot reportedly had a penchant for dozing on its cushions.) It was very laid-back in the old days, and it wasnt as organized. It wasnt financially stable, either. Cairnie ran the store more as a public service than as a business venture, sustaining it with his own funds as necessary. Over time, he changed the flavor of its stock as well. Moving away from fine editions, the Grolier began to offer both avant-garde literatureit was reportedly the first bookstore in Cambridge to carry James Joyces Ulyssesand the poetry selection for which it slowly became famous. By the middle of the century, the shop was an oasis of literary bohemianism in Harvard Square, often attracting customers more interested in hanging out than buying books. It was very much the place where poets met, says Frank Bi dart, A.M. 67, one of Robert Lowells students. According to the new U.S. poet laureate, Donald Hall 51, JF 57, its ambiance suited the creatively inclined. The Grolier provides the best elements of a literary caf, he wrote in a 1971 Antioch Review tribute to Cairnie, a place where writers can hang around, talk, or be silent, and remain unharassed.

Louisa Solano, a local resident who had fallen in love with the Grolier as a young customer, took over the shop when Cairnie died, in 1974, and ran it for the next three decades. Unable to subsidize an unprofitable store, she tried to turn the tiny venue into a commercially viable business. She kept better track of its stock, which eventually encompassed 15,000 titles, and made the decision to devote its shelves exclusively to poetry. She also worked to attract a broader range of clientele. I had customers coming in who were from different classesand I dont mean academic ones. There were poor people, people who had no education, she says. It was gratifying when somebody came in who didnt know anything about poetry.By talking with them, we could come up with something, and they really enjoyed it. They came back. That was the major success, as far as I was concerned.

Solano describes her halcyon years as the mid 1970s, when an assortment of small presses flooded her shelves with exciting new poets. Meanwhile, she says, the local literary community blossomed. Yet that energy was short-lived. A simultaneous proliferation of M.F.A. programs, she says, soon caused a sea change in the culture of American poetry. The M.F.A. curricula, based mainly on workshop courses, served as training grounds for many of the most prominent poets who followed. Solano thinks a spark of authenticity was lost along the way. Suddenly, everybody seemed to be writing like their instructor, she says. It made it quite clear that a poet has to have really good connections to get somewhere. It started getting kind of ugly, as peoples ambitions turned more towardambition.

This changed sensibility affected the Groliers customers, with more people seeking the same short list of poets and, these days, fewer buying. Theres more interest in hearing a poet read than in actually reading the book, Solano says. This is especially a problem for an all-poetry shop, which, unlike conventional bookstores, cannot count on bestselling novels or how-to guides to keep revenue flowing. Unsaleable inventory is exactly that, she explains.

An ever-thinning stream of visitorssometimes only 20 a dayand a mail-order business trumped by websites like Amazon.com finally caught up with the Grolier about two years ago. Solano, who suffers from epilepsy, also found that her health forced her to cut back the shops business hours. After announcing her intention to sell, she waded through 19 buyout offers but couldnt take any in good conscience. Some prospective owners backed off as soon as they saw the stores financial history. Others planned to change the name or mission of the shopan unattractive possibility to both Solano and Harvard Real Estate Services, which has set the Groliers rent below market rate. Only days before her lease expired, she says, she was planning to declare both personal and business bankruptcy. That was when Menkiti phoned with an offer. My reaction was, Oh God, you are the perfect person, Solano says. If theres any man who knows anything about international poetryand not just the kind thats the flavor of the yearits Professor Menkiti. The potential, she says, is huge; if Menkiti successfully harnesses his knowledge of world poetry, he could create a revolution in taste.

Revolution or not, the tiny shop was packed with well-wishers at the Groliers reopening party in May. Readings by both unpublished and well-known poets carried forward the day, which Menkiti emceed in a flowing African-print shirt. Bidart, now his Wellesley colleague, read a few new poems before Menkiti himself intoned some work by the Nigerian poet Christopher Okigbo. And the cash register, recently moved against the wall to make for a roomier browsing space, rang throughout the afternoon.