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The Road Not Taken Often Leads to Grolier’s

By Sonali Mukherjee

Upon entering the Grolier Poetry Book Shop, Inc. from Harvard Square, there are many things about the store which may strike the onlooker as unique. One is the absence of any distracting music. The collection of over three hundred photographs of famous poets hanging on the walls is another. The presence of a frisky and curious mascot, affectionately known to all as Jessica Pumpkin, is also an interesting addition to the store’s atmosphere.

Befitting its role as Boston’s premier source for poetry, books remain Grolier’s most striking characteristic. Volumes of printed material line the tall bookshelves that extend almost to the ceiling; and it’s all poetry. Grolier’s is one of two stores in both North and South America which specializes only in that particular genre.

Founded in 1927 as an antiquarian store by the original owners, Adrien Gambet and Gordon Caney, this unique shop located on Plympton Street is celebrating its 72nd anniversary. Famous poets such as Robert Pinsky, Allen Ginsberg, and Elizabeth Bishop have often visited Grolier’s for various events from book signings to the store’s ongoing poetry reading series, currently in its twenty-sixth year. “The store became known as a meeting place for poets,” says Louisa Solano, owner of Grolier’s since 1974. Somehow, it seems impossible that this renowned store is even accessible to the public, but the reality is that the poetry shop is a treasured gem of the community.

Novelists, critics, and teachers from as far away as Japan and Sweden often utilize the literature Grolier’s has to offer. Humanities professors in the Cambridge-Boston area also use it as an alternative source for buying course books rather than purchasing them from the comparatively antiseptic Coop. Thus, students from various institutions such as MIT, Harvard, and Tufts often frequent the store.

John Hildebidle, a professor of literature at MIT, is one of the admirers of Grolier’s and he regularly sends his students there for class books. To him, Grolier’s is a great service to the world of poetry, and it is important that people become familiar with the shop. “Everyone who writes poetry in the Boston area knows about it,” he said of the store’s reputation.

Competition from chains not a threat

The shop’s exclusive attention to poetry is one of its special characteristics. However, one of the major worries of small specialty bookstores across the country is the competition with major corporate chains such as Barnes & Noble and amazon.com. Solano takes an optimistic approach to the opening of these larger stores because they deflect non-committal poetry browsers. “The people who are really interested in poetry will come here,” she says. The real force behind Grolier’s following is the fact that it also carries back stock and less recognized titles and thus appeals to a different group of literary enthusiasts.

Solano admits that there have been a few bad years. She points out that most of the major corporations are millions of dollars in debt, and therefore does not feel threatened by them. The store also has much support in the area. If the store were to close, “there would be a tremendous objection from the community,” said Hildebidle.

The Grolier Poetry Book Shop, Inc. embodies the essence of the small bookstore tradition. The fact that it is the only poetry oriented bookstore in the United States seems almost incomprehensible. Yet it also seems perfectly logical that this shop would be located near Boston, the city with the highest density of universities in the country. Solano is confident that all her customers come away satisfied. “People come here looking for poetry, and that’s what they find.” she says. She also put in a good word for her MIT clients -- “They are the politest and most courteous students.”