In a Changing World of Literature, Grolier Poetry Shop Endures

The Grolier Poetry Book Shop is more than 90 years old but is still a hub for the Cambridge poetry scene. Photo by Brian Lee/ BU News Service

By Brian Lee
BU News Service

Tucked along a lightly-traveled side street away from the nearby bustle of Harvard Square in Cambridge, the Grolier Poetry Book Shop is stuck in time.

The oldest shop in America dedicated entirely to poetry rests quietly, looking and feeling much the way it did when it was founded over 90 years ago.

Behind its leaden black front door, high shelves hold more than 15,000 works in a room no bigger than a small studio apartment.

They house an eclectic collection that crosses cultures and centuries; a confluence of ideas new and old.

“It’s a very small space [with a lot of] history surrounding it,” said owner Ifeanyi Menkiti. “People like the closeness, the intimacy.”

The Grolier is the heart of the Cambridge poetry scene, promoting local and foreign poets and holding frequent events and readings.  

A crowded table in the center of the cozy room holds new publications, many of which have been published by the Grolier Poetry Press, the shop’s own publisher.

On adjacent shelves, there are even first editions published before the Grolier opened in 1927.

Some of the authors are well known. Many are not.

An original copy of “Selections from the Poetical Works of Robert Browning” from 1872 waits along the store’s right wall. Two copies of “The Complete Poetical Works of William Cowper” from 1878 sit untouched in the back.

Above them, more than 50 black and white photographs of notable poets like Ezra Pound and Marianne Moore hang from the highest spaces of the Grolier’s walls, watching patrons browse their works.

Behind the register, there’s a portrait of shop founder Gordon Cairnie. His original 1927 welcome sign with its now-worn shades of red, brown and green is perched by the front door.

Menkiti’s connection to the Grolier runs deep. He first met Cairnie nearly 50 years ago as a graduate student at Harvard and gave a poetry reading in Inman Square in 1972 to help raise money for the shop.

Menkiti, a now-retired professor of philosophy who taught at Wellesley College, purchased the financially-troubled Grolier in 2006 and turned the shop into a nonprofit to ensure its vitality.

“I [just] wanted to keep this wonderful institution going,” he said.

Through the years, the shop has maintained a loyal – albeit niche – following of patrons young and old. This has allowed it to stay successful while so many other bookstores have shut their doors.

“There are people that still love poetry,” said Cassandra Taylor, a college freshman who is working as the shop’s intern. “There’s no better place to find something you love than something that specializes specifically in that.”

Another lure is the shop’s poetry readings. The Grolier has hosted Claudia Rankine and David Ferry within the last month, and Wendy Chen visited the first week of March.

Menkiti said the Grolier prides itself on the diversity of its poets, who hail from everywhere from India to Australia.

“The shop is so old and it has so much ambiance,” Taylor said. “What’s not to love about it?”

 

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