Tucked away on the quiet Plympton Street in Harvard Square, Grolier Poetry Book Shop, founded in 1927, is the nation’s longest-standing all-poetry bookstore. Today, however, its future is uncertain. In an age of e-readers and online book orders, the antique charm of a hole-in-the-wall bookshop that is closed on Sundays and Mondays might not be enough to retain the public’s patronage. Ifeanyi Menkiti, the current storeowner, a philosophy professor at Wellesley College, and a poet in his own right, put it simply: “The sales are unpredictable.”
Grolier’s rare dedication to a single genre has made it a lyrical sanctuary for both the local and national poetry communities. Historically, renowned poets and young enthusiasts alike have frequented 6 Plympton Street to satiate their literary cravings amid the sky-high stacks of volumes. But when I stopped by the store a couple of weeks ago, I observed a rather disheartening inventory. There were three walls of sparsely filled floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, and a corner dedicated to spoken word recordings, collector’s editions, and photo albums from poetry readings that the store has hosted over the years. The shelves were missing names like Mary Oliver, Billy Collins, and Allen Ginsberg—best-selling poets whose work had sold out and the store could not yet afford to restock.
If the inventory leaves anything to be desired, however, it is certainly not because the owners have neglected to put in the time and effort. “I don’t think people understand the levers we have to operate to keep this place going,” said Menkiti.
After Professor Menkiti and his wife Carol rescued the business from the brink of bankruptcy in 2006, they turned it into a nonprofit enterprise (and more of a quasi-poetry club than a retail business). Since then, the Grolier Poetry Foundation has launched fundraising campaigns, like its eighty-fifth anniversary campaign in 2012, “to insure that the life and legacy of Grolier continue.” Larger fundraising efforts will continue in the fall of 2013, and the store collects donations year-round in the glass jar at the cash register to support the store’s poetry reading events. (The readings are free to the public—hors d’oeuvres and enriching discussion are included.)
Even as he strives to improve Grolier’s financial status, Menkiti is very aware of the current issues that small bookstores like his own face. “The digital revolution changed the whole market,” he said. “It’s just amazing the number of bookstores that have closed down, even around Harvard. Chain stores like Barnes and Noble have swallowed the independent stores, and now they too are having their own problems!”
Is Grolier heading down the same path as the other independent bookstores that have folded? If you ask Menkiti, the answer is an adamant no. “Because of its nature and its history, the store is really performing a charitable public service. We mean a lot to our patrons. People are still counting on us. After eighty-five years of history, you can’t just close.”
Furthermore, as Menkiti emphasized, Grolier’s singular focus on poetry critically distinguishes it from other small independent bookstores. “What poetry has got going for it is its tremendous psyche. We all have a basic material need for it. There is just something about poetry—it really keeps the mind and the human being going.”