Keeping Up Shop: Grolier Poetry and Raven Used Books

raven used booksIfeanyi Menkiti is the owner of Grolier Poetry Book Shop, the oldest all-poetry book shop in the country. Photos by Emily Cassel.

The local and the literary, two of Cambridge’s top values, meet in independent bookstores around the city. Our big names—Harvard Book Store and Porter Square Books—come from our neighborhoods rather than national chains. They seem to be thriving, with celebrity author events, cafe? menus and warehouse sales. But what about the niche bookstores, the even smaller subset of an already small business?

In the past 10 years, Cambridge has lost shops like Lorem Ipsum Books and McIntyre & Moore Booksellers. Those still standing, including Bryn Mawr Bookstore, Raven Used Books, Rodney’s Bookstore and Grolier Poetry Bookshop, are squaring off against online sales, rent increases and the bottom line to keep their doors open and their shelves stocked.

STAYING SMALL, THOUGH NOT BY CHOICE

Raven Used Books has had a home on JFK Street since 2005, but owner John Petrovato has been a bookseller since the early ‘90s. His decades-long book ventures have taken him from Montague, Mass. to Northampton to Amherst to Cambridge, where he manages Raven’s stock of scholarly and literary used books. “This has been our best year in 10 years,” he says, despite the prevailing narrative of the spectre cast by Amazon and statistics that say less than 10 percent of book sales today take place through independent shops. A closer threat comes in the form of finding a financially viable space in the city. “In New England in general, and in Boston and Cambridge in particular, the rents are really the things driving bookstores out of business,” Petrovato says. “I could be in Austin, Texas, with three times the space and pay a third of the rent.”

Lease troubles hit Raven in early 2015 when they decided to close their five-year-old Newbury Street location due to rent increases. They recently suffered a second blow at the Cambridge store when their landlord upped the rent and shortened the lease terms. “I thought we’d be here forever,” Petrovato says. The hunt was on for a new, nearby location in the literary hub (once home to the country’s first printing press), but space is limited for small businesses.

“The market in Harvard Square is really tight,” Petrovato explains, “and there’s these national chains coming in, like these burger chains, and it’s forcing the whole market out of control.”

raven used books

The current Raven Used Books location at 52 JFK St.

The issue is not only location, but a large enough location. Petrovato was a previous co-owner of Book & Bar in Portsmouth, N.H., and has expressed interest in bringing the bookstore-restaurant concept to Boston. A revamp of the traditional bookstore-cafe?, Book & Bar features a full kitchen and bar plus used books, live music and arts events. “It would do awesome here, but you would need a lot of space to do that. Now, you see T.T. the Bear’s going out of business and Johnny D’s and all these places—you can’t have a lot of space in the city anymore.”

Raven has since secured another lease in Harvard Square thanks to landlords who are vested in keeping the store local. They’ll be moving into the former Beadworks space on Church Street by early October and hope to keep their doors open for another 10 years.

LEGACY, HISTORY, ECONOMY

Grolier Poetry Book Shop faced similar uncertainties in 2006 when then-owner Louisa Solano, close to bankruptcy, decided to sell the historic store. The genre-focused bookshop was founded in 1927 and remains, in the words of current owner Ifeanyi Menkiti, “a little shrine” to American poetry, having attracted the likes of T.S. Eliot, Elizabeth Bishop and e.e. cummings. Menkiti is Grolier’s third owner in 88 years.

“It’s the oldest all-poetry bookshop in the country and, I think, probably by default, the world,” says the poet and retired Wellesley professor. That illustrious specialization, however, can complicate retail considerations. Menkiti explains that poetry volumes have a small profit margin, but that the Grolier legacy outweighs that: “You’re carrying a cultural weight and you’re also carrying a financial, business weight. People are counting on you. That’s part of the joy and the frustration of the place.”

To address the dual aspects of the Grolier as both an institution and a storefront, Menkiti launched the nonprofit Grolier Poetry Foundation and Grolier Press. The Press publishes first-time authors—winners of the Grolier Discovery Award—and a series of established poets. Says Menkiti, “The Press has been a pleasant surprise for me, and I’ve tried to choose things that speak to me. The educational and cultural mission of the bookstore continues to be served by these books. Luckily, some of them have had enough traction that some regenerative sales have helped us keep the brick and mortar going.”

Each of Cambridge’s independent bookstores is navigating a particular set of challenges, but their resourcefulness in their renewed business approaches speaks to their staying power. Petrovato’s proposed literary-dining hybrid promises to keep the book scene exciting, while volunteer-driven Bryn Mawr Bookstore has moved some of their rare editions and used books to an online storefront. Whether it’s the addition of a printing press at the Grolier or a poster press at Rodney’s Bookstore, the small book businesses of the city continue to change with the market and prove their worth, page after page.

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