Off the main streets of Boston’s Harvard Square, tucked down on 6 Plympton Street, sits a poet’s dream spot. And although it’s original sign is under repair, a temporary one hangs in its place—announcing in clear black and white, “Grolier Poetry Book Shop,” a site billed as the “oldest continuous all poetry book shop in America.”
Walking into the small store that houses more than 15,000 volumes stacked on tall bookshelves lining every inch of wall space, you may be greeted by one of the three people who work there; owner since 2006, Ifeanyi Menkiti, a poet and professor at Wellesley College, his wife Carol, or Elizabeth Doran, a staff member who’s been with the store since Menkiti took over.
Above the high shelves hang a series of black and white photos of famous poets and authors who have spent time there, or as Doran explained, “established a relationship,” with Grolier’s. T.S. Eliot, Robert Lowell, e.e. cummings, Allen Ginsberg, Marianne Moore, Conrad Aiken, Anais Nin…the list of famous poets and writers both past and present who’ve been a part of this historic spot goes on and on.
Grolier opened in 1927 with two owners, Gordon Cairnie and Adrian Gambet as a rare bookstore with poetry, as well as fiction. A couch was on hand for those who wished to come hang out and talk poetry, writing, philosophy and life, but Doran says at that time, there wasn’t much book-selling going on. As the stories go, many of those who frequented were known to borrow as opposed to buying.
The shop was in bad shape financially, but in 1976, Louisa Solano took over—making the shop more of a business. Her first priority was to throw out the couch. Doran says Solano wanted to make the shop an, “exclusive showcase for poetry,” and if people wanted to socialize, they would be able to come to book signings, readings and special parties at the shop where they would be able to talk about their latest writings while buying them all the same.
Who Should Go
Doran says Grolier is a shop for, “anybody who has even the least interest in poetry, whether it’s contemporary or modern or more formal, classical poetry.” She adds it’s a place for anyone, “who is interested in language, poetry, history, or book stores–especially independent ones.”
For those with an international interest, Grolier’s recent reading event with the NY Review of Books launched a new translation series, starting with translations of Russian poet, Alexander Vedemsky, as well as Miguel Hernandez, read by their translators—Matvi Yankelevich and Don Share, Editor of Poetry Magazine.
For the first time, Grolier teamed up with the Harvard Book Store around the corner for a joint reading with Kathleen Spivack who read from, “With Robert Lowell and His Circle,” a sign that independent and mainstream can successfully come together.
Between April and May poets from Burma will be coming to read their work, in addition to a book signing for Gregg LeStage, who will be reading from “Small Gods of Summer” (April 16th) and a reading with members of the Wesleyan University Press (April 30th).
The window boasts colorful papers with poems of different themes, sometimes conceptual and often from contemporary writers. Doran works to pick the “Poem of the Day,” showcased on the shop’s Facebook site, and often inspired by things she finds in real life—for instance, an abandoned bicycle found nearby led to a poem about an abandoned bicycle. Other choices are from selections that she finds interesting or moving.
Grolier now has its own imprint, as well as a Discovery Award where up-and-coming poets have a chance to be published. All following in its mission to keep poetry alive, and preserve this shop for all who may travel into it.
More For the Book Lovers
If you’re continuing through the area, a stop at the Harvard Book Store, established in 1932, and located at 1256 Mass Ave allows you to experience the “Gutenborg” printing press. The popular store has a comprehensive collection of used books in great shape, in addition to the latest books on the market (many written by professors at Harvard Universty). And if used books are your thing, Raven Used Books is just a few blocks away, known for its hard-to-find works. Perhaps you’ll find an unusual souvenir to bring home!
If you need to take a moment to refresh before moving on, but want to stay with a literary theme, the First Printer Restaurant sits on the site where Stephen Daye, the first printer in British America, lived. It’s walls commemorate the printing press and more, with antiquities and newspapers “dating back more than 300 years.”
Enjoy the walk, and the poetry.