400 square feet of poetic punch

The Grolier Poetry Book Shop celebrates 75 years of legendary patrons, collegial readings, and just plain survival

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The Grolier Poetry Book Shop is easy to miss.

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.

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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.

No contact with reality

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.

Poetic license and a storied past

Those legends may take a bit of poetic license, but there's no doubt the shop has a storied past. Shortly after Cairnie and Adrian Gambet founded the Grolier in 1927, Conrad Aiken moved in upstairs. In the 1940s, the shop was the favored stomping grounds of Donald Hall, Robert Creeley, Frank O'Hara, John Ashbery, and Robert Bly, all Harvard undergraduates. At a time when Cambridge was the center for American literature, the Grolier was the center for Cambridge poets.

The store was almost more a club than a shop in those days. Cairnie funded it in part with his wife's money, so he could afford to give away books and ignore such trivialities as business operations. "You never even saw money," Solano remembers. "He kept the change in his pockets. So you were led to believe that yes, books could sustain you physically. Of course," she adds ruefully, "they can't, however much we'd like them to."

She quickly discovered that when she took over the store in 1974, after Cairnie's death. Its books and records were a shambles, and Cairnie had no credit with anyone. "I realized I had bought something I loved, but there was no means to survive in it," Solano says.

Up till that point, the Grolier had been a general bookstore, with more first editions and collectors items than most. But Solano decided she needed a niche.

"I thought, well, I know two things. One is Victorian literature. And the other is poetry. And I like the poetic mind better."

For a few years, she tried to maintain the store's legendary atmosphere – the relaxed literary club where someone could borrow a book as soon as buy it and business was never an outward concern. But after years of working grueling hours, Solano says, it finally sank in that "while I was eating cheese sandwiches once a day to maintain this, all these people I was making these sacrifices for were going to writing workshops, were going off on vacations, lived in homes that were secure, and I wasn't. So I sat down and said, I have to run it like a business."

That hasn't been easy. Poetry has never been profitable, and in recent years other stores have encroached on the Grolier's territory. Barnes & Noble now carries volumes of Sharon Olds and Pablo Neruda along with standard fare like Wordsworth and Yeats. The few people interested in new or little-known poets can find many of the titles they want on Amazon.com.

Yet in some ways, the Grolier is more vibrant than ever. Solano sponsors an impressive reading series, gives an annual poetry prize, and founded the Inter- collegiate Undergraduate Poetry Reading 11 years ago. "I had noticed that any student who came in here from other schools thought they were the only poets alive," she says. "I thought they'd better begin talking to each other."

An intimate power

And along with her ability to locate obscure and out-of-print titles, Solano offers one thing that none of her competitors do: intimate knowledge of and opinions about poetry.

When customers come in and tell her, as many do, that they need to find a poem to read at a wedding, she doesn't just rattle off old standbys. She sits them down, asks about the bride and groom, finds out what the service is like, how well they know poetry, and what sort of poems they like. She rarely repeats a recommendation.

The Grolier, says former US poet laureate Robert Pinsky, "is valuable for the same reason poetry is so terribly important: human scale.... [Its] intimacy has a power, an appeal that cannot be matched by any mass medium or any mass marketing."

Far from being a relic whose golden age has passed, he adds, it is "a much more vital place than in the old days of Gordon Cairnie, when the stock was smaller and the atmosphere was more of a private club. The store is more welcoming, and serves more needs."

Sometimes, Solano is wary of being too welcoming. Visitors copy down titles or get recommendations, only to go and buy them through Amazon. Theft is also a problem, and one of the reasons that Solano is often brusque with newcomers. The people who come and browse for an hour, she says, are most often the ones who steal.

Frequently, her visitors are tourists, elated to have at last found the erudite Harvard Square they imagined – walls of obscure books, a whole store devoted to one type of literature. To them, says Solano. "It's a landmark. It's a monument. It's a symbol of what intellectual Harvard Square should be. But they don't buy anything here."

Interest in poetry, she says sadly, may be dying.

A packed celebration of an ideal

You wouldn't guess that from the recent Poetry Society of America event to celebrate the Grolier's 75th anniversary. Nearly 800 people packed Harvard's Sanders Theatre to hear some of the most celebrated contemporary poets read verse and reminisce about the shop.

Donald Hall remembers his first visit to the Grolier in the 1940s as a Harvard freshman excited to find a volume by the new poet Richard Wilbur reviewed in the latest New Yorker. He still has the book, he shows the crowd, now worn and much-read. Robert Creeley later reads from a first-edition Ezra Pound he bought there for $4.50.

Eamon Grennan recalls Conrad Aiken sitting on the sofa, "telling salacious stories of Eliot and Frost," Frank Bidart speaks of seeing Elizabeth Bishop there just before she died, and James Tate admits he found the Grolier more than a little intimidating – it took two months of scurrying silently in and out of the store before he mustered up the courage to tell Cairnie he was that year's Yale Younger Poet.

Philip Levine, meanwhile, treasures a more recent memory. He came to the Grolier hoping to replace a favorite anthology of Spanish poetry. It was out of print, but Solano asked him to watch the store for a few minutes. She returned with her own copy and gave it to him.

For Solano, the tribute is a bit overwhelming. But the idealized image these poets paint of her shop is simply what she has always seen.

From that first day she arrived at the Grolier as a teenager, she says, she "had fallen in love with it."

As discouraging as her job has sometimes been, that love affair with the Grolier – and with poetry – never waned.

"I don't travel much," says Solano. "So I depend upon what I read. And poems are a great way to travel beyond your own limits."

• Send e-mail comments to paulsona@csps.com

Poetry books on Louisa Solano's list

Philip Levine, "What Work Is," Knopf, 1992

Sharon Olds, "The Dead and the Living," Random House, 1985

Rainer Maria Rilke, "The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke," Translated by Stephen Mitchell, Vintage Books, 1989

David Ferry, "The Odes of Horace" (translation), Noonday Press, 1998

Seamus Heaney, "Preoccupations: Selected Prose, 1968-1978," Noonday Press, 1981

Marilyn Chin, "The Phoenix Gone, the Terrace Empty," Milkweed Editions, 1994

James Tate, "Memoir of the Hawk," Ecco Press, 2002

Martín Espada, "City of Coughing and Dead Radiators," W.W. Norton & Company, 1994

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