400 square feet of poetic punch
The Grolier Poetry Book Shop celebrates 75 years of legendary patrons, collegial readings, and just plain survival
The Grolier Poetry Book Shop is easy to miss.Skip to next paragraph
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To locate its 400-square-foot home, you must veer off Massachusetts Avenue, the main thoroughfare in Harvard Square where Abercrombie & Fitch and Au Bon Pain hold court. A narrow street leads you away from the commanding presence of the Harvard Bookstore to a small hanging sign the only clue that you've found the venerable nook now celebrating 75 years as a safe haven for verse and its creators.
Decades after such legends as Robert Creeley, Conrad Aiken, and John Ashbery used to congregate at the Grolier's vibrant salon scene, this tiny store still serves as the poetic heartbeat of the town, sponsoring more than half of all Cambridge poetry readings.
Most of the 45 or so bookshops that once lined these storied streets have disappeared. But the Grolier somehow survives, an anachronism that refuses to go the way of the Mandrake Bookstore or the old Five and Dime, and whose walls carry silent tales of some of the most famous thinkers to pass through New England.
"I sometimes feel like I'm the character in 'Sleeper,' " admits owner Louisa Solano. "I live in a time warp."
She also lives in a world where nothing is too obscure or cutting edge to find shelf space. Shelves labeled "cowboy poetry" and "Scandinavian" run into walls of Latin American and British poets. Some 16,000 titles climb up to the ceiling and stretch behind the register area; they're stacked in corners and spill over the shelves.
If the abundance seems overwhelming, Ms. Solano can help, though she'll likely pick your brain to discover your tastes and poetic sophistication before she offers her recommendations.
That the store has continued so intact is due in large part to Solano's tenacity, along with the loyalty of poetry lovers and a town that still has more literary roots than most. But even in intellectual Cambridge, life is tough for such a specialized store, and the Grolier's future is far from certain.
The Grolier has always been more than just a bookstore. When Solano describes her first glimpse of the shop, as a painfully shy 15-year-old in the 1950s, her voice takes on a certain reverence.
"It was a fantasy scene," she remembers. "You know when you read 19th-century novels, and you envision the booksellers? That's what it was. There was no contact with reality."
Above the shelves of books, so high you must crane your neck to see them, an old guard of famous poets keeps watch over the shop. The black and white photos of T.S. Eliot, e.e. cummings, Marianne Moore, and other Grolier visitors offer a hint of the legends that were made here, back when promising young writers from Harvard University would gather around the store's old red couch ready to discuss the latest in literature or simply share a drink with Gordon Cairnie, the store's charismatic owner.
e.e. cummings had his first exhibition of paintings at the Grolier he didn't sell one. T.S. Eliot was supposedly so offended by Mr. Cairnie's erratic business hours that he refused to enter the store and once engaged Cairnie in a shouting match by the doorway. And Allen Ginsberg, some say, gave a reading of "Howl" here after it was banned, until the police rushed in to shut it down.