If only the Grolier Poetry Book Shop in Cambridge, Mass., had had the cash reserves of its 16th-century namesake, French book collector Jean Grolier de Severières, perhaps it wouldn’t have had to struggle financially during its first 85 years. As Ifeanyi Menkiti, the store’s third owner since its founding by Adrian Gambet and Gordon Cairnie in 1927, says, “It’s always been a labor of love.” Now, as he readies the tiny 404-sq.-ft. shop, the oldest continually operating poetry bookstore in the country, for its 85th anniversary celebration in the fall, he is looking to make it viable well into the future. To do so, Menkiti created the Grolier Poetry Foundation, a nonprofit organization, which will provide support for poets and disseminate their work—and keep the historic bookstore alive. He will be rolling out parts of the program over the next couple of years. “The idea,” he says, “is not for the foundation to absorb everything right now.”
Six years after buying the store, Menkiti, a Nigerian-born poet and longtime philosophy professor at Wellesley College, says, “I [still] don’t understand retail; I don’t understand business.” He purchased the store from Louisa Solano in 2006 just days before she was considering declaring bankruptcy. Under Solano’s watch, which began in 1974, things weren’t always so dire. Early on she transformed the shop from a belles lettres bookstore into poetry-only and brought it up-to-date. She removed the sofa in the center of the room where Cairnie had sat with poets like e.e. cummings, Donald Hall, and Menkiti himself, when he moved to Cambridge to study political philosophy with John Rawls at Harvard. Solano added display tables and installed a computerized inventory system.
Although she initially filled the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves with new volumes of poetry, by the end of Solano’s tenure much of the inventory had been depleted. The book business had changed, making it much harder for a small, niche store to compete. Mail order, a mainstay of the store in the 1970s and ’80s, fell off with the growth of online retailers. Chain stores carried the cream of the poetry titles that Grolier stocked. And health problems interfered with her ability to run the shop.
Like Solano, Menkiti has dipped into his pockets to replenish the store’s inventory and keeps a very lean staff, primarily him and his wife, Carol. But his biggest contribution could be shoring up the store’s finances by turning it into a nonprofit. “This isn’t like your regular business. You can’t close. People are counting on you. It’s a cultural institution, so you keep it going. I want to make sure, having spent this energy and resources, this thing will succeed. My sense is, if this thing can go after I’m gone, my work will be done,” says 72-year-old Menkiti.
Still, he worries what would happen if the wrong person were to head the foundation, which is why he’s planning to make the transition gradual, beginning with the publishing program he began when he launched the Grolier Discovery Awards last year. The first book to appear under the Grolier imprint is Keith O’Shaughnessy’s Incommunicado, which received the 2011 inaugural award. Menkiti will publish the manuscripts of this year’s winners—Partridge Boswell’s Some Far Country and Spring M. Berman’s All Time Acceptable—later this summer and bring out an anthology of poems selected from all the manuscripts submitted in the fall.
Menkiti will also expand the Grolier imprint in the fall, when he introduces the Established Poetry series to print new works by some of his favorite poets. First up is So Spoke Penelope by Chicano poet Tino Villanueva. He also looks forward to doing a collection by Fred Feirstein. “These are the things that excite me,” he says.
Although Menkiti is winding down his work at Wellesley and looks forward to retirement, he is not looking to bow out of the store anytime soon. The events, the publishing program, and the light in the eyes of a penniless high school student who spent three hours there reading one afternoon continue to thrill him. “How do you quantify this joy and service?” he asks. By turning the Grolier into a nonprofit, he hopes at least to preserve it for the next generation.
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