Customs house STORIES FROM 'THE CHRONICLE'

A Bookstore for Poets
and Lovers of Verse


By Lawrence Biemiller

Cambridge, Mass. -- In 1974, Louisa Solano was fired from her job at a local bookstore --"for my belligerent attitude," she says, with a mischievous smile. Shortly afterward, the executor of Gordon Cairnie's estate asked her to take over Mr. Cairnie's one-room bookshop on Plympton Street. It was called the Grolier, and it shared a block with the most bohemian of Harvard University's residential colleges, Adams House. The Grolier had been open 47 years, and it had an enviable reputation as a meeting place for writers, especially poets.

What it did not have, Ms. Solano knew, was a marketable inventory, or a respectable credit rating, or a lot of customers."Gordon was famous for his post-card correspondence with everybody," she says."He never sold books, he never paid bills, he just wrote post cards. And he was cantankerous. People who came into the store would be insulted." Ms. Solano, in fact, had seen this happen again and again -- she had been going to the Grolier regularly since she was 15."I used to hang out there, straighten up the piles, dust things. I was very, very quiet and never joined the conversation."

By the time Mr. Cairnie died, Ms. Solano had been working in other bookstores for years and had earned a bachelor's degree from Boston University. She managed to get a bank loan, co-signed by friends, and a three-month lease on the shop. She junked most of the secondhand volumes, got rid of stacks of old magazines, and decided to concentrate on selling poetry: "Most of the customers in the '70s were poets, and most of the books that were in salable condition were poetry."

"Everybody thought I'd be gone in a day," she says. Twenty-two years later, the Grolier Poetry Book Shop has 14,468 titles in stock and legions of loyal fans, some of whom visit in person and some of whom send in their orders, from as far away as Japan. Ms. Solano believes it is the only store of its kind in the United States."The other all-poetry bookstores are either secondhand or first-edition," she says."I think we're the only off-the-street, open-to-the public, in-print poetry bookstore."

Actually, it's that and much more. The Grolier sponsors poetry readings at Adams House every Tuesday night during the academic year, and book signings every Saturday afternoon. It also sponsors its own poetry competition, the Grolier Prize, "for people who don't have previous publications -- to give somebody an opportunity," Ms. Solano says.

Ms. Solano herself serves as a one-woman information exchange for her customers, poets and readers alike. She recommends books to students and other new readers, suggests workshops and publishers to aspiring writers, passes along new gossip and old, even sets customers up on dates. (She never sets up one poet with another, though.) She dispenses advice to novices ("A lot of people have never thought of reading aloud") and to callers who want to console themselves with poems after a loved one has died (she recommends Tennyson's "In Memoriam"). The two things she won't do, she says, are help people pick verses to read at weddings and help those whose questions are primarily commercial -- for instance, a publishing-house editor who wants to know what new poems to include in an anthology."I charge now for consulting," she says.

As bookstores go, the 404-square-foot Grolier is a marvelous, cluttered anachronism. A plate-glass window overlooks Plympton Street, and shelves climb all the way up the high walls. A big, square table in the center of the store is stacked with books -- Robert Pinsky's new volume, The Figured Wheel, sits near a Collected Poems of William Butler Yeats and an anthology called In Time: Women's Poetry From Prison, which has only 13 numbered pages. Beside these are audio tapes, including one called Becoming a More Productive Writer and another that features Maya Angelou reading"The Inaugural Poem." There are dozens of journals, and a poetry cookbook called Written With a Spoon, and a wonderful collection called Poetry in Motion: 100 Poems From the Subways and Buses, the copyright to which is held jointly by the Poetry Society of America and New York's Metropolitan Transit Authority.

Books by American poets are arranged alphabetically along the back wall, although half a shelf of overflow F's is stacked in front of the E's, blocking both John Engels and Daniel Mark Epstein. The computer and the telephone crowd into a paper-strewn niche by the end of the alphabet, complicating access to everyone from R through Z. The left wall displays books arranged by category -- African American, Chinese, Cowboy, Epics, Gay and Lesbian, Greek and Latin, Irish, and so forth. "The philosophy I started from was to broaden the outreach of this store," says Ms. Solano."Having been around here so long, I was well aware of how narrow the clientele was."

The store is open daily from noon to 6:30 -- except Sunday, which is Ms. Solano's day off. Otherwise she arrives around 10, along with Jessie, her dog. She uses mornings for things she can't get to when the store is open -- like uninterrupted phone conversations. At 11:30 or so she walks around the corner for a bagel, which she eats in the Adams House lobby. The first customer arrives shortly after she unlocks the door -- today it's a graduate student in education who wants to know where he can find open poetry readings, and whether Ms. Solano can suggest a free-lance critic he could pay"to read my stuff and rip it apart."

Their conversation is interrupted by a call from someone who complains about book prices for 10 minutes and ends up ordering an $8 volume. This is just the kind of complaint that steams Ms. Solano."People come in with custom-made T-shirts that probably cost $15 or $20, yet they complain about the cost of a book someone's been working on for years," she says. "Most of these books cost less than a hamburger on Holyoke Street."

She speaks fondly of other customers, however."There was an engineer for NASA who walked into the store after reading about it. He said, 'Teach me something about poetry.' Now he has one of the largest collections in the country. Another customer sent $600 every other month and told me to send small-press books to various schools where his children had gone. I met him only once, at the very beginning, bu he helped keep the store alive for years, and helped pay the small-press bills."

A slow day at the Grolier may bring in only 25 people; a busy day, 100. Ms. Solano runs the shop more or less single-handedly -- selling poetry isn't especially profitable, even if your landlord is Harvard and you get a break on your rent for operating a cultural resource. This summer, when Ms. Solano had to take two months off to recover from surgery, customers kept the store open for her.

When she's not answering questions or ringing up a sale, she packs up books she's mailing out, or phones customers to let them know that books they've ordered have arrived. She hardly seems belligerent. She laughs as she tells stories about poets she's met, and every few minutes she recommends another book: "Have you read Timothy Liu? He's an ex-Mormon poet. He was one of the winners of our poetry prize."Mr. Liu teaches at Cornell College; his latest book, which she pulls from the L's, is called Burnt Offerings. She describes Martin Espada, who teaches at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, as"an ex-lawyer and a terrific reader." His new book, Imagine the Angels of Bread, joins Mr. Liu's on a visitor's to-buy pile.

Ms. Solano is not a poet herself. She says she's partial to Jane Austen, whose novels she rereads every year, and to Chaucer. But she seems familiar with every book anyone asks about in the course of the afternoon -- indeed, she almost seems familiar with every poem."I read poetry for the image and the sound," she says."I don't find the thoughts and the experiences all that unique, but I love language." There can be no doubt of that. She has 14,468 titles as proof.

Copyright © 1996 by The Chronicle of Higher Education. Published September 6, 1996.