Independent Bookstore: The Grolier Poetry Bookshop, Est. 1927

The phone rang behind the desk and the clerk turned away from our chat to answer it. I was the only customer in this 400-something square-foot space, so I couldn’t help overhear her end of the conversation. She used words like “marketing campaign,” “Facebook,” and “Tumblr.” Those words sounded strange in this space, as if it were still 1927 inside.

Tucked away on a side street in Harvard Square, Grolier Poetry Bookshop is the oldest continuously operating poetry bookstore in the United States, according to the store’s website. Notable visitors of yore have included e. e. cummings, T.S. Elliot, and Allen Ginsberg, to name a few. With that kind of history, it stands to reason that there would be some air of grandeur in the shop, and I half expected the Grolier to be staffed by egotistical hipsters, grumpy poetry experts with no time for casual customers like me.

But walking into the shop felt like walking into a familiar living room. The place is smaller than my apartment, a feat I’d thought impossible, with shelves along three of the walls and a new release and local authors table in the center. Nothing flashy. A couple of faded oriental rugs on the dark wood floor.

And the clerk, Elizabeth, is not grumpy or egotistical, or a hipster. She greeted me warmly when I came in, let me get my bearings for thirty seconds or so, then asked if I was looking for anything special. I requested a title, Rachel Webster’s September, and she looked it up. No dice, she said, but Mary Oliver just came out with a new book. Dog Songs. I’d read about that collection recently and, while it sounds sweet, I don’t do well with sad animal stories. I told her as much and she laughed and asked where I’d read about the book.

Next I picked up Sharon Olds. “That one’s good,” Elizabeth told me, “but Stag’s Leap is really beautiful.” She seemed more concerned with discussing the poetry than selling it, and I could imagine salon-style get-togethers taking place here, way back when. Elizabeth showed me the preferred title, and then left me to my own devices. She was here if I needed her, but wouldn’t intrude.

I pored over the books for a few more minutes. The breadth of the inventory in this tiny room is astounding. The shelves are filled primarily with American poets, from classic high school curriculum fodder to more contemporary work (and one collection by a former professor whose name still gives me the shakes). There are selections from Spain, England, Germany, and several other countries, as well. It was a bit overwhelming. Fortunately, Elizabeth didn’t scold me for depositing my bag in a corner, or for sitting on the floor to read bottom-shelf titles.

“Are you a local?”

It was as though the thought had just occurred to her, and had come as an immense relief. I told her my story and she said, “Tell me more about that book you wanted.”

She looked up Rachel Webster’s book for me and offered to order it. “It’s probably something we should carry anyway, she mused.” The book ordered, I paid for the Sharon Olds she’d recommended and asked what kind of traffic the store gets.

“A lot of tourists.’

The tone she used to answer explained the relief I’d heard earlier when she’d asked if I was a local. Grolier’s in all the city guidebooks, so they come in looking to buy something – anything – from the oldest continuously operating bookshop in the United States. Like Dog Songs. Or Leaves of Grass.

(I laughed at the generalization, but I also understand the frustration. I used to work in a kids’ boutique in the city and the number of tourists who clamored for a copy of Make Way for Ducklings, only to reject it because it’s not in color, is truly maddening.)

While I was welcome in the shop no matter who I was, real acceptance hinged on the fact that I was interested in the poetry, rather than the history. And I appreciate that. While the shop has every right to zero in on its status as “Old Famous Historical Bookstore,” Grolier focuses instead on its core identity: Poetry Bookshop. I can’t wait until my copy of September comes in, so I have an excuse to go back.