Grolier Poetry: Sanctuary in Harvard Square

In Praise of an Independent Bookstore in Cambridge

It’s easy to miss, if I’m not paying attention.

Grolier Poetry Book Shop sign. Photo credit: Seelai Karzai

A small hanging sign signals my arrival at the Grolier Poetry Book Shop. Its brick-and-mortar storefront is tucked in the shadow of the Harvard Book Store on the corner of Plympton Street and Massachusetts Avenue in Harvard Square.

As an Afghan-American poet constantly in search of works about belonging and marginalized identities in America, I find Grolier to be a kind of sanctuary.

An Elite History

I walk inside on a quiet and rainy Friday afternoon at the end of March. The shop is empty except for me and a young college student at the cash register, who greets me with a small “welcome.”

Since 1927, notes a 2012 article in Publisher’s Weekly, Grolier has been a tiny but vibrant 404-square-foot home for poetry and those who write and read poems. This wasn’t always the case, though. The shop initially specialized as an elite salon for gossip and first-edition books, including some poetry, published by private presses. I feel the echoes of this history whenever I walk through Harvard Square.

Since 1927, Grolier has become a vibrant home for poetry.

Over the years, different owners have brought a variety of interests and energy to the shop. Louisa Solano, the bookshop’s owner from 1974 until 2006, won awards for her part in broadening interest in poetry and in focusing the shop on selling poetry and poetry criticism only. In a 2002 interview with the Christian Science Monitor, however, Solano lamented that interest in poetry was dying.

And yet, with its claims of being the oldest continuous poetry shop in the country, Grolier’s existence in America illustrates a clear hunger for work that details the human condition.

The Survival of Poetry in Harvard Square

Grolier Poetry Book Shop takes to Plympton Street for its 90th Anniversary celebration in 2018. Photo Credit: Seelai Karzai

This hunger for poems seems to form the basis of a quiet understanding between me and the cashier—that he won’t disturb my discovery of a great book of poems. I glance from shelf to shelf of thin volumes. Every shelf is neatly curated with labels that define the contents alphabetically. There are British, American, and Latin American poets, along with the occasional book of “cowboy poetry.”

The shop’s current owner, Nigerian poet and Wellesley professor Ifeanyi Menkiti, has a shelf prominently dedicated to him. Since he purchased the shop in 2006, Menkiti has brought his love for poetry to a wider public audience through anniversary events, an Established Poets imprint series, and public readings.

After 9/11, people didn’t ask to read a book of history, or a novel—they wanted to read a book of poems.

Ifeanyi Menkiti

In 2017—the shop’s 90th anniversary—Menkiti told the Harvard Crimson, The fact that [the Grolier is] still there when the big companies like Borders and Barnes and Noble are being swallowed up by Amazon shows how poetry can help to move the world along.” He also noted: “After 9/11, people didn’t ask to read a book of history, or a novel—they wanted to read a book of poems.”

A Haunting Verse

Towering above the shelves are framed portraits of poets such as E. E. CummingsT.S. Eliot, and Robert Pinsky. I sense these poets peering over me, nodding their approval at the shop’s continued existence.

I circle around the large table in the center a couple of times. Only months after the passing this year of poet Mary Oliver, there are volumes and volumes of her work on display. Copies of Agni and Consequencelocal literary journals, are among a small selection of newly released titles.

At one corner of the table, there’s a little basket of poems to take along on my journey. I comb through this selection, looking for a poem that might surprise me. I finally pick up a slip of paper. On it is “American Dream” by Emily Jungmin Yoon.

The poem begins softly in the form of a letter to a Korean mother about the speaker’s American partner:

The alcove of your arm
has become my favorite room
for sleep, but I’ve been roused
by nightmares lately. 

Toward the end, the poem takes a sudden, chilling turn:

last night a Korean man broke into your room
and raped me, with you calm in your repose
next to me.

Yoon draws together a history of violence against women with the earlier, sincere yearning for an American dream, the rags-to-riches capitalist myth of pulling yourself up by the bootstraps. Despite the above startling admission, the speaker reassures the mother that nothing is wrong at the end, thereby asking us: Is the American dream possible for women of color?

Haunted as I am by Yoon’s depiction of war and violence, I leave Grolier with her tenderness, too—and the reminder that poetry should move us with a sense of reflection and purpose.

Additional Resources

Grolier Poetry Book Shop Website: for more about the shop’s history, calendar, and book press.
Poetry Foundation: for more information about poets.