Editor, Georgia Bellas; photos by Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer; interview by Sarah Sweeney/Harvard Staff Writer

Arts & Culture

A cultural institution

2 min read

The Grolier is a historic literary enclave in the heart of Harvard Square

While volumes of poetry, sadly, may not sell the way, say, a Stephen King novel does, Ifeanyi Menkiti knows firsthand that poetry’s gifts are priceless. That’s why, in 2006, he purchased the Grolier Poetry Book Shop, a historic literary enclave down an unassuming Harvard Square side street.

Menkiti was a young Harvard Ph.D. candidate studying under John Rawls when he first encountered the Grolier in 1969; he was also a burgeoning poet who’d go on to publish several collections, all the while unaware that he’d someday become the shop’s third owner and poetic steward. In its 88-year lifespan, the Grolier has struggled to stay afloat, with the rise of online retailers and frequent lulls in sales. “The poetry business isn’t what it used to be,” lamented Menkiti, who is originally from Nigeria.

Founded in 1927 by Adrian Gambet and Gordon Cairnie, the Grolier is touted as the oldest continually run bookshop solely dedicated to poetry. In its heyday, the shop was a common stop for the “Who’s Who” of the poetry world, including Robert Lowell, Robert Creeley, Elizabeth Bishop, and others. In 2004, the Academy of American Poets designated the store a national poetry landmark.

More than that, said Menkiti, the store is a cultural institution. And when the shop went up for sale in 2006, the retired Wellesley College moral philosophy professor didn’t hesitate. “I wanted to see a powerful institution continue,” he said. So he phoned in with an offer. It was the right thing to do.

— Sarah Sweeney