The Grolier Poetry Book Shop in Harvard Square has been around for many years. It is one of the very few all-poetry bookstores in the country, and certainly the most respected. Louisa Solano has owned it since the early 70's. The store has seen its share of difficulties, and it has been recently sold. Awhile ago I asked a number of poets about their memories of the shop.--Doug Holder
First let's start out with an interview I did with Louisa that was published in a number of small press magazines.
Interview With Louisa Solano
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 on Plympton St., in the heart of Harvard Square, Cambridge. I talked with Solano on my Somerville Community Access TV show Poet to Poet/Writer To Writer.
Doug Holder: What was the straw that broke the camel's back that made you feel you might need to put the business up for sale?
Louisa Solano: I 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.
Doug Holder: 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?
Louisa Solano: I don't write postcards, I send emails. I do sell books. I try not to be cantankerous, but admittedly I have my moments.I have Temporal Lobe Epilepsy. I was diagnosed in my 40's. I know people have accused me of looking through them or being a snob. Actually when I am doing this it may very be in the midst of a Petite Mal. People say that I sometimes yell at them or say some really horrible things, but quite frankly I have no memory of it most of the time. It's unfortunate when people have that experience of me, because since I am not aware of it I can't do anything about it. To apologize is to say I am responsible, but I am really not. People don't comprehend how this disease controls one's personality. Sometimes the way you speak comes out like Tourette's Syndrome.
Doug Holder: It doesn't seem that you had warm, fuzzy feelings for Gordon Cairnie.
Louisa Solano: 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.
Doug Holder: Could Cairnie be called a snob?
Louisa Solano: Cairnie was very class conscious. Gordon definitely liked people who were upper class, had money, were beautiful. There was a sign on that door that read "No Law Books" "No Text Books". It was very confusing and ugly for the younger people and students who hung out there. When I took over the first thing I did was to take down the signs. I democratized it out of the white male poet syndrome and moved the store to more involvement with the community.
Doug Holder: How as it for a woman to run a bookstore, when it was a mostly male-dominated business?
Louisa Solano: 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 Jan. 1974 after Cairnie died. It took me over 10 years of owning the store to get any kind of confidence or raise my voice. People were always saying to me: " Can you please speak louder, we can't understand you!"
Doug Holder: It is common knowledge that well-established, famous poets patronized your store. But how about the BEATS, or poets outside the mainstream?Louisa Solano: Elsa Dorfman, the well-known Cambridge photographer, was one of the employees of the Patterson Society, which basically brought people like Robert Creeleyand 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 (it seemed)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.
Doug Holder: What gave you the idea to change the Grolier from a regular to an all-poetry bookstore?
Louisa Solano: First of all it wasn't 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.When I took over all I inherited was a lot of bills, and unsellable books. I first tried to run it as a general bookstore. I realized if I were going to survive, I'd have to decide what this bookstore represents. After a month of sleepless nights, I decided to make it a poetry bookstore. I felt that was really needed. My decision to make it a poetry bookstore wasbecause of how undervalued poetry was. In this country the only way anything gets respected in this country 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". And it worked. It influenced the Academy of American Poet to start a National Poetry Month.
Doug Holder: Can you talk about some of the famous poets who visited the store over the years?Louisa Solano: Robert Lowell visited the store twice. The first time I saw him I thought he was a bagman. Octavio Paz passed through here. I had a really wonderful conversation with him in the store. I couldn't believe I was talking psychology with OCATAVIO PAZ. I kept thinking I was going to freeze up, and will not be able to speak. When Seamus Heaney came to town, I noticed a couple with two kids in the Irish section. A little girl turned around and said, " My Daddy (Heaney) wrote this." I thought that was just wonderful. Jorie Graham comes through, as well as Peter Sacks. Donald Hall once said: "I want to be buried under the boards of this store." I said " Not on your life!"
Doug Holder: You started a prize competition and a reading series. Was this an innovation for a bookstore?
Louisa Solano: Gail Mazur started her reading series, and I followed shortly after. She and I actually started the poetry prize together. Yes, it was an innovation. Most stores did not do that. I also started autograph parties. That was a lot of fun.
Doug Holder: What do you view as the role of the Small Press in the poetry world and literary world in general?
Louisa Solano: 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.
Doug Holder: 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?
Louisa Solano: A student came in 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. One man who was totally obnoxious told me: "I have never been treated in such a manner before!' I said: "Wonderful, now you have a new experience!" I didn't want to disappoint the man, so I gave him a new experience.
Doug Holder: Can you name some of your favorite poetry journals?
Louisa Solano: Hanging Loose Tin House, to name a couple.
Doug Holder: Do you plan to write a book about your experiences?
Louisa Solano: Yes I do. People were suggesting I write a memoir of the store, but they were thinking of themselves as a central figure. I informed them the store would be the central figure. They didn't like that. 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.
Doug Holder: Are you a frustrated poet and or novelist?
Louisa Solano: I am a frustrated poet. About 7 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.
Doug Holder is the founder of the Ibbetson Street Press and Arts/Editor for The Somerville News. http://www.authorsden.com/douglasholder
I do remember one fine day, strolling in, and seeing two figures seated there, one at either end. Both were poets but "public figures" enough to be recognizable: Robert Lowell at one side, Allen Ginsberg at the other. Each seated so that they need not cast the slightest glance at the other.
As a teenager, I went to the store often, before I began to write and then even before my first book. I have a photograph that appears in a small book, OFFERED BY OWNER, standing in front of the Grolier. In the window, a peace sign, an Eberhart book (later he became very very supportive of my poetry and invited me to Dartmouth, was part of why I won a Bouder Writer's award-- I actually visited with him as recently as 1995)
I can't read many of the covers of the books -- one I don't recognize but what I can read is " The Carrier of...Lad...Po by M....? I'm holding a copy of a magazine that I think looks like Lilibulero...Probably in the original I could read more titles. But Grolier Book Shop is clear
I know things change but I'm not very good about change. And today is the anniversary of my mother's life so I feel nostalgic-- I came to Grolier's with her often since we were in the Boston area often, relatives, Brandeis....
I hope somehow Grolier keeps on.
yours: Lyn Lifshin
It's the only bookstore devoted entirely to poetry,
When I first entered the Grolier Bookstore, it was like a new world open up for me. It felt like I was in my favorite friend's livingroom, just having fun browsing through all of her cool books! And now that I look back on it -- I was in one of my cherished friend's livingroom - Louise Solano! At the time, I wasn't even aware of Louisa by name, but I knew that I liked her and I loved her dog. She was very helpful and seemed to know by psychic connection where any author was that I inquired about. Her dog at the time was also cheerful and fluttering about the shop, making the place quite charming as well. There was and still is no other poetry bookstore like the Grolier. It has a history and warmth that goes unmatched in today's technical and competing world.
I have always been quoted as saying that competing in poetry really doesn't make sense. And I must add on that note, that no other bookstore that I know can even compare to the Grolier -- especially in the variety and diversity that is offered in the poetry. Louisa I believe has had much to do with that intensity! I have had the pleasure of knowing Louisa on a personal level as well because I cared for her last dog that unfortunately had a bout of cancer. Louise has many challenges and we seem to share one challenge
that many people often mistake for a mood disorder, namely epilepsy - temporal lobe epilepsy.
Temporal lobe epilepsy affects one's short term memory and moods constantly and it is always a constant battle to concentrate on daily tasks and to keep one's wits in tact. With all of this in mind, Louisa was able to manage an entire bookstore, contribute to the poetry community and offer a passion for the arts that goes beyond what many of the local bookstores even try to mimic. I personally respect what Louisa has done for all of the poets and she has been an inspiration for me as well in a very unique way.
My love and best wishes to you,
Deborah M. Priestly
Local Cambridge poetess
Co-Owner of the Out of the Blue Art Gallery
106 Prospect Street
Cambridge, MA 02139
It is a little like the Five & Dime store around the
corner from where I grew up in East Baltimore. It
has everything. The Five & Dime was the first inner
circle of heaven when I was a little boy. As a man
in the world of poetry, I have often peeped in the
window of Louisa's store the way I did when I was
nine or so, looking to see what all is there in a place
that has everything. She is a little hard to talk to
some days, just like the guy who had the Five & Dime.
When I see the lights are on but the door is locked,
I know she will likely be right back, or she has had
enough of the unenlightened to need to take a longer
break. There is a certain confidence you have to
have when you go in there, and you have no choice
but to get to know Louisa, her love of poetry and
of pets. If you are lucky you have seen her chase away
prose fans or you have gotten your own dose of her
occasional lack of patience. Under all the toughness
and the ongoing battle with the Harvard dons, there are
the tender Louisa moments, such as when she and I traded
tales of getting older and what health can be. She
looked at me through and above the vinegar facade
to ask, "Are you okay now?" Louisa is sincere in those
moments, just as when she says, "This is not a browsing
Neither was the Five and Dime. Just ask us kids
who got chased away.
Afaa Michael Weaver
(b. Michael S. Weaver)
aka Wei Yafeng"You must be the change you wish to see in the world."--Gandhi
I don't remember any other bookseller, upon meeting me for the first time, immediately identifying a book of mine on his or her shelves. This was well over 25 years ago. Do that thousands of times graciously, as I'm sure she has, and you'll succeed at the otherwise impossible challenge of SELLING poetry for a lifetime, as I gather she has, yes.Kiddies, take note. richard kostelanetz PO Box 444, Prince St.New York,NY 10012-0008
Many years ago I started organizing poetry readings for Oxfam America,the relief & development agency. The first year we held a marathon reading in a Cambridge church, and Louisa was one of the readers--I believe it was one of the first times she had read her own work publicly.-- Ruth Lepson
I have been at the Grolier Poetry Bookshop many times and it is dear to my heart.My most vivid memory of it is the day I asked Louise to help me locate: "The Battle of Lepanto" by G. K. Chesterton. It is a relatively unknown poem by a poet who is better known at the author of the Father Brown mysteries.When I was a freshman in high school, we did an all school assembly choral presentation of "The Battle of Lepanto". We rehearsed it so often that I still have most of it memorized. But as one gets older, memories do fade and I had forgotten parts of it.
I had searched anthologies in the libraries; did a 'google' search on the internet, looked everywhere. Finally I asked Louisa --- expecting full well that she might never have heard of it.Much to my amazement, she asked no further questions on it, but went straight to a shelf, pull down a book, opened if up to the exact page and presented my beloved "Battle of Lepanto" to me!Since then, Louise has had a special place in my heart and I am eternally grateful to her.--Cora Ott
When I was a high-school aged truant from the Wellesley Public School system, I would often flee to Harvard Square in search of bookstores full of all the things Wellesley lacked.
Part of my specific rebellion against my school, public education, and the world in general, was to sart spelling my name "like a poet would". What I came up with was
r-y-k. The fact that it sent my Born-Again Christian Biology Teacher nearly over the edge just confirmed my choice.
While looking through the shelves that were full of more poetry than I thought possibly existed, I came upon a book called "Trusting Your Life To Water And Eternity", poems by Olav H. Hauge, chosen and translated by Robert Bly. And there, on page 14, I saw the poem "Det Ryk" which was translated on page 15 as "Smoke".
It was proof I existed in the world of poetry.
When I was an undergraduate in college in the early 80's, I took a poetry course with the Irish poet Richard Murphy, who
was visiting from Ireland. Murphy wrote some significant works back in the 60's, 70's, and 80's and had been friends with Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath when they were married and living in England (in fact they stayed with him at his farm). Anyway, when I began writing my own poetry 10 years later, I thought of him a lot (he was an excellent teacher, and thought he would have been proud that I was writing and on the verge of publishing my first book), but had no idea where he was, or even if he was still alive. Then one day, when I was browsing in the Grolier, I came across a copy of his selected poems, which I had not seen before. I opened it up, and there was an inscription inside: "Inscribed for the Grolier Bookshop on the 1st October, 1994 -- Richard Murphy". He had been to the shop just a few months before! Reading those words suddenly made me feel that connection to him again, as if he'd left that book for me to find. It was a wonderful feeling for me, and the incident shows, in a small way, how the Grolier has truly been a waystation, or a communal home, for poets from around the world. Needless to say, I bought the book! Regards, Andrew Jantz
The first time I met Gordon Cairnie in 1965, he threw me out of his store for smoking. He was ahead of his time. He had a huge beatup couch to the left side of the entrance, with a photo gallery of some of the best living poets, including Lowell, Pound, Jarrell, Williams and many others. I remember meeting William Corbett with whom I had my first disagreement. He said that Pound's legacy would last longer than Eliot's. Time changed me. When I went to visit Pound in August, 1966, I felt transformed, so much so that when I wrote my doctoral dissertation it was on Pound's relationship to French literature. I once asked Gordon about James Laughlin, the publisher of New Directions. Gordon exclaimed, "Do I know Jas. Laughlin? I knew him when he was a kid!!"
It was a tiny tiny store, but it generated so much kinetic energy and inspiration. I put it on a par with the Gotham Bookmart in New York, and City Lights in San Francisco. At Gotham I met Frances Stellof for the first time, and Ferlinghetti later in North Beach, San Francisco. Gordon was the third line of the triangle.
Ezra Pound in his old age said, "It is sad to look back," but it is even sadder when a legacy is not perpetuated. Ms. Solano carried on that tradition for over three decades, and in my opinion, never got the respect she deserved. Many of us had a part in putting her out of business. For that, my deepest regrets. Harvard Square is not the place I once knew. Perhaps I'm the one who changed. But I meet so many serious poets who have never read even half the books on Pound's must reading list, let alone a fraction of the great books on Louisa's shelves. May the future re-discover lost legacies.
Having worked in Harvard Square 45 years ago, my feelings about this are as youmight expect. I suppose I was more than a little intimidated by the place as ayoung fellow, though—Grolier's already seemed older than time, the very namesounded medieval, and I was sure that everyone in there had grown incrediblyfamous with age.... I literally can't believe it will ever close. Maybesomeone will buy it.... There was one imminent demise thereof round about themid-sixties, when a toffee-nosed men's clothing store at the corner of Plymptonand Mass Ave decided to expand its rear end. They wound up leaving Grolier, butwith only half its former space. Frank Kramer might have some interestingmemories, since his store was G's neighbor for so long. I'll ask him if I see him soon enough....
Alexander Levering Kern
51 Berkeley Street, #2
Somerville, MA 02143
Harvard Square on Christmas Eve
-- for Louisa Solano and the people
of Grolier Poetry Book Shop
The door cracks wide and deep
as I dive headfirst into the venerable
bookstore seeking shelter from the slant-
wise rain. Inside the escape hatch I breathe
at last, yet words like water choke
and I gasp for air. Across this aquarium
the owner throws a lifeline and fish food
to a novice learning to swim.
How can I help? she asks
for she sees not simply a customer
but a would-be, may-be poet
casting a net. She fields questions,
proffers wisdom, lends an ear
to the word emerging in the
modest manger of my life.
After long minutes listening
to a litany she must have heard
rehearsed a thousand times,
she drops a depth charge, breaking the news.
In a bush-whacked economy,
a world averse to verse
and awash in war, the well has run dry.
The doors will close, barring a miracle.
Quietly we return to our business:
shopping and shelving,
browsing and bailing out the flood.
I buy two books, fumble for feeble words
to convey gratitude or hope.
The door closes behind me.
Outside, the homeless tin man
greets me, his sign reporting AIDS
abruptly, like a worn medical chart.
Kern, "Harvard Square on Christmas Eve"
Dreadlocks fly as the sea lion roars
and holiday shoppers indulge their
impulse-buying instincts in megastores,
smiles frozen like creatures of the deep.
Rain falls, and the young man playing guitar
hopes that lightening will strike, for once.
The national security code flashes bright orange,
an empty beacon in this Christmas storm of scarlet
A homeless carnival barker peddles Spare Change News.
Hey young man!
Have a heart
Christmas eve at the bottom of the sea.
(Published in the "Ibbetson Street Press")
I met Louisa in Jogn Malcolm Brinnin's Modern Poets course at BU, in the front row of his classroom, in the late sixties. It was the term Randall Jarrell died. I didn't yet know who he was, but Louisa, and Brinnin, and It seemed everyone else did. She told me she was working at Grolier, then, and offered to bring me a copy of Horton's biography of Hart Crane, whose "Bridge" we had just studied. I was thrilled. The fitrst book I'd bought at college outside of texts. I refer to it still.
It would be 10 years more until I began to write. The Grolier was my hangout and Louisa, mentor, advisor, friend. By the time I was teaching workshops, I had my students but their texts there, and have their readings tehre as well. I was overwhelmed when Louisa sponsored my first book-signing, and everyone thereafter. The reading at Adams House was my "made it" moment, this small town scholarship kid, strutting her stuff there!
Louisa got me going in a way she could not know. And kept me going. And keeps me still. An inspiration and supporter of us all.
We are all wiser for her labors.
Barbara Helfgott Hyett
After editing an anthology of poems from the feminist magazine Sojourner, I went to the Grolier & asked Louisa if she had any suggestions as to where to send it. She said, there are 4 midwestern university presses that wouldd publish this, and she told me what they were. I sent the MS to those 4, and Illinois took it!-- Ruth Lepson
I'll never forget bringing City of Poets to Grolier to see if Louisa would sell some for us. I nearly lost my liver when she insisted on reading my poems then and there. Then I nearly floated home after she expressed appreciation and agreed to carry some books for sale. Maybe I never got paid, but I sure was encouraged. I can't imagine that the charm of Grolier will be quite the same under a new owner. I hope there will still be great readings at Adams House. --Linda Haviland Conte
Doug Holder http://www.authorsden.com/douglasholderhttp://www.ibbetsonpress.com/