Boston Landmark: Grolier Poetry Bookshop On the Market

The acclaimed poet Donald Hall said of The Grolier Poetry Bookshop: “It is the greatest poetry place in the universe.” And this may not be hyperbole. Founded in 1927 by Gordon Cairnie and Adrian Gambet, it was the first bookstore in the Cambridge area to sell James Joyce’s, Ulysses. In its salad days, the likes of T.S. Eliot, Allen Ginsberg, Marianne Moore, and countless other poets patronized this store. Louisa Solano, the current owner, has been connected with the store for over forty years, first as a worker, and later as an owner. Solano changed the original Grolier, to an all-poetry bookstore, probably the most prominent in the country and perhaps the world. Solano told an interviewer that the bookstore was much more than a seller of books. In its prime Solano said the place was “packed with people, reading books and discussing poetry.” Due to escalating rents, the Internet, and the difficulty with competing chain bookstores, Solano has been forced to consider selling this haven for poets in the heart of Harvard Square, Cambridge. I talked with Solano on my Somerville Community Access TV show Poet to Poet/Writer To Writer.

What was the straw that broke the camel’s back that made you feel you might need to put the business up for sale?

ESSENTIALLY HAVE BEEN SUPPORTING THE STORE ON MY CHARGE CARD for the past two or three years. I have no real money of my own. It came to the point when I had to pay, and I just couldn’t. And also one year there was a very heavy theft in the store, and I couldn’t recover from it. This store actually existed on mail-order business for many years. In 1998 the Internet started coming up, and gradually ate up my business. Poetry is the texture of life and language, and if you don’t have it on an actual page in front of you, you are losing your language.

In an interview with a group of Emerson College students you said of the original owner, Gordon Cairnie,”Gordon was famous for his postcards and correspondence with everybody. He never sold books, he never paid bills, and he just wrote postcards. And he was cantankerous. People who would come into the shop would leave insulted. How have you changed things?

I DON’T WRITE POSTCARDS, I send emails. I do sell books. I try not to be cantankerous, but admittedly I have my moments.

It doesn’t seem that you had warm, fuzzy feelings for Gordon Cairnie.

I WAS OFTEN IN THERE WHEN I WAS 15 OR 16 years old. He let me sit in the shop. And as a lot of the younger people came along, he did the same thing. We could project on him the “second father” and things like that. When I first came to the Grolier he was not cantankerous. I understand that he had an accident that changed his personality. Gordon’s social life centered on Harvard international students and the B-School. It was a very sophisticated group that hung around the store. So the whole group that surrounded him was urbane and well-educated. And you had the students from The Harvard Advocate. At this time there was also a great sense of warmth.

How was it for a woman to run a bookstore, when it was a mostly male-dominated business?

I WAS CHRONICALLY, ACUTELY SHY. I hardly ever opened my mouth. I never talked. I was the youngest person there usually. I took over the store in January 1974 after Cairnie died. It took me over 10 years of owning the store to get any kind of confidence or raise my voice.

It is common knowledge that well-established, famous poets patronized your store. But how about the Beats, or poets outside the mainstream?

ELSA DORFMAN, THE WELL-KNOWN CAMBRIDGE PHOTOGRAPHER, was one of the employees of the Patterson Society, which basically brought people like Robert Creeley and Allen Ginsberg to Cambridge. Dorfman was and is a friend of mine, so she provided a Beat scene. Ginsberg happened to be her best friend. Jack Kerouac read at Harvard toward the end of his life. Irish poet, Desmond O’Grady, shoehorned me into a meeting with him. We went to see him read. The audience was packed with students, waiting for Kerouac to behave like Kerouac. He was inebriated. Afterwards, Desmond took Kerouac, myself, and a number of students, to visit every single after hours bar in Cambridge. We eventually walked Kerouac back to the place he was staying. I remember, that same weekend, Sylvia Plath died. We were at Cronin’s in Harvard Square and Desmond came in waving a newspaper and said, “She’s dead, she’s dead, we are now the only remaining poets.” He grabbed Kerouac, and Kerouac backhanded Desmond, and said “Don’t touch me!” Later, two young men came in and told Kerouac they had “gold,” and he staggered down the street with them. That’s the last we saw of him.

What gave you the idea to change the Grolier from a regular to an all-poetry bookstore?

IT STARTED OUT AS A FINE PRESS BOOKSTORE. They had quite beautiful, limited, first edition books by Edna St. Vincent Millay, John Galsworthy, and others. When I went in there these books were covered with dust. A second printing of Edna St. Vincent Millay is not worth much to most people. Tastes change. He had a lot of poetry for that time, which made him a leading poetry bookseller on the East Coast. Gordon changed it from a Fine Edition to a more literary bookstore. My decision to make it a poetry bookstore was because of how undervalued poetry was. In this country, the only way anything gets respected is by money. Money defines anything that’s worthwhile. If I could create a poetry bookstore that actually existed on commercial terms, people would say: “Look, its got some worth.Ó And it worked. It influenced the Academy of American Poets to start a National Poetry Month.

What do you view as the role of the Small Press in the poetry world and literary world in general?

I HAPPEN TO LOVE THE SMALL PRESS. To me the small press is the supporter of poetry. The small press brings back the adventure. When I first came to the Grolier there were all these pamphlets in the store. I was the first store to carry Language Magazine; in fact, I was the first seller to carry many of the small press literary magazines.

Poetry can bring out the best and the worst in people. You have had a host of difficult and even irate customers in your store over the years. Can you tell me about your experiences?

A STUDENT CAME INTO THE STORE AND STARTED TO YELL at his professor, who happened to be there. He claimed the professor had “stolen his mind.” I calmed him down, and took him to the outpatient clinic of a local hospital. That was an interesting event. Another time a young man came into the store half-naked, swinging a tire iron. I had to take it away from him.

Do you plan to write a book about your experiences?

YES I DO. People were suggesting I write a memoir of the store. I have been around so long, and I know a lot of “stories.” I feel I am going to need a good lawyer before I publish anything. The Houghton Library at Harvard will receive many of my papers.

Are you a frustrated poet and or novelist?

I AM A FRUSTRATED POET . About seven years ago I was ready to shut the doors of the store, and do my own work. Then I figured what I was doing was more important than writing second-rate poetry. I very much want to write again when I leave the store.