Friday, October 14, 2005

Louisa Solano to be Honored at the Somerville News Writers Festival
By Amy E. Brais

Louisa Solano will receive the Ibbetson Press Lifetime Achievement Award Nov. 13 for her work with the Grolier Poetry Shop over the past three decades. Solano said she came to own the Grolier Poetry Shop – America’s oldest store that sells only poetry and the only store of its kind in Harvard Square- because when she was 15 years old, terribly shy to the point of being almost mute, she walked up the stone steps to the store and “had an epiphany.” She knew she would own the Grolier some day. The store is known to have had copies of Joyce’s Ulysses before it graced the shelf of every bookstore and library, housed greats such as Jack Kerouac and Alan Ginsberg in volume and in voice, and is frequently visited by Donald Hall, Philip Levine, and Seamus Heaney (to name a few) and was run for years by the infamously cantankerous Gordon Carnie, to whom Solano is quick to show her continued respect and admiration. Her first visit to the Grolier Poetry Shop soon turned into a regular occurrence. Solano recalled sitting at the end of Carnie’s couch, taking in the conversation of poets and visitors and eagerly doing whatever she could to help around the store.
“He paid me in tea and cookies and affection,” Solano explains. When Carnie died in August of 1973, Solano was 26 years old. She was selected to read at his memorial service. “You have to remember, I was mute – I didn’t speak then. I went through all of my handkerchiefs…” Solano became the owner of Carnie’s store shortly after that. “A lot of people thought that the store should close down in memory of Gordon. People thought an aspiring poet should run it. People thought I should give books away like Gordon did. The thing is – his account book was meticulously kept,” she said. In other words, Gordon had intended to receive money for his transactions, he just never collected. The store had long been supported by Carnie’s wife, so when Solano took over without the cushion of a benefactor, she had to make a few key decisions. She decided to collect money for the books she sold, and she decided to turn the Grolier into a specialty store to cater to the niche poetry market. “People thought I was insulting Gordon’s memory by making a business out of it,” Solano remarked. She found that the decision to make the store all poetry was a way of showing that “poetry has a space in every day life,” she said. But to mention Carnie is not to say that the life of the Grolier is one of the past. During the last 32 years, Solano has helped the store evolve, survive, and thrive in Harvard Square. From Chaucer to Art Garfunkle, Solano has cultivated a collection of poetry that blends the classic with the obscure and reaches well beyond her personal taste. Solano has become as much a fixture in her store as the volumes on the walls, and photographs of poets that reach up to the ceiling. “Someone once said it was a marriage. And I was deeply offended because I’ve been divorced twice. But the fact is, the love of my life is this store,” she said. Over the years, Solano has used her store as a vehicle for her own beliefs and interests. She made a point of stocking a close to 50/50 ratio of male and female poets in a store that had historically housed an imbalance of male writers. A few years after Gail Mazur initiated her reading series, Solano began her own. She uses her store front window as a place to display provocative frescoes of pertinent topics. She recalled a window from the Gulf War of children walking into the desert holding peace signs, with bombs exploding in the distance, and frescos addressing topics such as feminism and AIDS. Solano never shied away from carrying and distributing her share of controversial or progressive poetry. She mentioned selling the books that openly addressed such issues as heritage, gender, and homosexuality. As Solano spoke, dwarfed by bookcases on all sides, a young journalist made her selections. Solano has been helping her by making suggestions to the girl intermittently throughout our conversation, and I watch as she rings her customer up. She has decided on a book by Denise Levertov, and with Solano’s guidance chooses Thomas’s A Child’s Christmas In Whales. “I’ve sold hundreds of these over the years,” she said. A little while after the girl leaves, a woman comes in. She’s visiting from Maine, and after Solano told her the store is closed for the night, says she will come back tomorrow. After the woman leaves, Solano remarks, “A lot of tourists come through here because this store is what they expected from Harvard Square. It serves as a tribute to intellect.”
For many, the Grolier does serve as a tribute to intellect and to poetry, full of both celebration, and the inevitable loss that comes with caring for something so deeply. “Being in the presence of a great poet, whether or not that person recognizes you, I think it stimulates you to grow. It’s a kind of love. Even if you don’t know them – there’s an exchange going on in the spirit,” she said. Solano remembered the day she heard that Ginsberg had died. “I literally felt the earth moving beneath me. I ran around the corner to the Harvard Bookstore to tell them the news. The store clerk said, ‘thank you for this news, I’ll do a window immediately’. I was horrified – for me this was a personal loss.” She continued, mentioning Robert Creeley, a long-time friend of the store, “When Robert Creeley died, I felt that my relationship to poetry had died as well.” She folded her arms and paused. “I still can’t believe it.”
But Solano seemed focused on the endurance of poetry. When new customers walk in she often warns, “Be careful – you’re going to become a poet if you’re not already.” When asked if she is a poet, she said, “Seamus Heaney once said that ‘anyone who writes one poem a year is a poet’. I used to write poetry, but the main reason I stopped writing was that I didn’t have enough confidence in what I wanted to say. It’s hard when you’re surrounded by all these great voices. I just don’t have that kind of ego,” she said. Still, Solano appreciates the endeavors of other amateur poets. “I love watching the writing process. Even if the ideas are redundant –new generations always push them further,” she said. . Looking back at her time at the Grolier, Solano viewed it as a fulfilling career rife with personal growth. “I feel that year by year I have gotten stronger and stronger in my belief in myself. I had believed that the store was my identity. Coming in here is such a healing process for me. I am one of the most fortunate people in the world. I have done exactly what I wanted to do. Most people’s dreams don’t come true like that,” she said.For more information about the festival go :


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