The Grolier Poetry Book Shop celebrated its 95th anniversary on Sunday, Oct. 9. Just down the street from The Harvard Crimson, the Grolier has stood between the Harvard Book Store and Hampden Hall for all 95 years of its existence. On Sunday, over 20 poets and friends of the Grolier convened on Brattle Street for live poetry readings and music.
Porsha R. J. Olayiwola, a Boston-area poet and educator, performed several original poems that covered themes ranging from water to the Black diaspora. Several poets, including herself, presented new, unpublished poems from manuscripts in progress. One of Olayiwola’s performed poems was an “eavesdrop-cento,” a collection of quotations inspired by her time in Provincetown, MA this past summer.
“As a person who writes specifically poetry, I think it's imperative to have poetry-specific places,” Olayiwola said. “Poetry needs to become institutionalized as an art form, as a literary form, because it’s embedded in our everyday lived experiences, and how we perceive the world.”
For Anna V. Q. Ross, a poet and poetry editor who also performed at Sunday’s street festival, the Grolier community has been pivotal in her life and her work since she moved to Boston over 20 years ago. She read pieces from her newest collection, which comes out next month — poems that grapple with motherhood and school shootings.
“Early on in my teaching career, I had a student, midway through the semester, raise his hand and ask, ‘Do people still write poetry?’” Ross said. “I realized that in order for us to have poetry be a living art, we need to make sure our students know that it's in the world right now. That’s what the Grolier does.”
James G. Fraser, who has been manager of the Grolier since Feb. 2022, said he first came to the shop after being invited to work as a stage manager for the shop's poetry festival. He stayed, however, for the poems. “I love books, so naturally this was a good place to be,” he said.
The Grolier was founded in 1927 by Adrian Gambet and Gordon Cairnie, whose portraits adorn the walls at 6 Plympton St. along with photos of other patrons. According to Fraser, Cairnie ran the Grolier as a first-editions and rare books and poetry bookstore. He established it as a place where the local literati would hang out.
“Gordon was friends with the likes of Ezra Pound and James Laughlin, and many other Harvard students, ” said Fraser. “For example, Frank O'Hara used to come in here back in the day.”
But Fraser noted that Cairnie’s shop wasn’t always inclusive: “During the Gordon era, it was known as a boys club. There was a couch where the register is currently and people would just come in here and hang out; Gordon wasn't really concerned with selling books, he’d just give them away.”
It was in the 1970s, when Louisa Solano became owner of the shop after Cairnie’s death, that the Grolier became the poetry emporium that it is today and took on a more inclusive atmosphere.
In 2006, the Grolier was sold to Ifeanyi Menkiti, poet and professor of philosophy at Wellesley College, who ran the store until his passing in 2019. The shop is still owned and operated by his family, whose mission is to continue to advance its poetry focus.
Andrea L. Fry and John M. Fry, two attendees of the 95th anniversary celebration, said they come all the time to the Grolier. The late Ifeanyi Menkiti was Andrea’s uncle.
“Ifeanyi not only kept [the Grolier] alive but kept it growing, and it continues to grow under the leadership of his family, of his wife, Carol, and their daughter, Ndidi. We’ve grown with it, and it’s become very important to us,” said Andrea, who is a nurse practitioner and published poet.
Independent poetry shops mean the world to people like John and Andrea. “These are the people who organize other people’s thoughts; they manage other people’s expectations in terms of poetry,” John said. “That’s true in New York as well as Boston with the Grolier.”
—Staff writer Karen Z. Song can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.