As a young boy, I lived in the sports pages and played on sandlot baseball diamonds after school. I dreamed about the big leagues. My dreams and my future were one.
As a young man, things became a little more complicated.
I couldn’t really hit a curve ball and I started noticing that the second question that people asked grown-ups after their name was “What do you do?”
Businessman? Doctor? Lawyer? With high school, a wider and more terrifying world was opening up.
I stumbled on T.S. Eliot and his poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” in which he wrote about the early 20th century. It is set in Boston’s Beacon Hill.
It seduced me from my fading childhood into my predestined future with its opening lines:
Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Ezra Pound pronounced this poem as “modern” — part of the dark reality of the new century and its new poetry. And so it was for me, standing there, in the Grolier Poetry Book Shop with J. Alfred Prufrock in my hand, a freshly minted teenage groupie at a one-room bookstore with towering bookcases.
Grolier was intimidating, but it held a world of new alternative heroes as I was losing my childhood and falling into the shadows of some job that would define me when asked “What do you do?”
How did this happen?
Posted on the front door of Grolier Poetry Book Shop was a blunt sign: “No Law. No History. No Economics. No Biology. No Physics. No Chemistry. Only Poetry!”
Gordon Cairnie, one of the founders, would sit on an old couch and hold court with published poets who were different in every way than the people I knew.
He waited for some unsuspecting student to walk in and ask if the store sold law books or the like.
Gordon would unload on the innocent walk-in and turn all the heads of the browsing readers when at the top of his voice he would answer, “No! But what difference does it make to you because you can’t even read the sign!”
Everyone would laugh in this freshly reconsecrated space and the young student was sure never to return again.
The point of entry to this new world was the “dare to be different” commitment to admit out loud that you were a poet and a believer, not a tourist.
I was way too shy.
This was a lot different than sandlot baseball, but within it there was still room to dream.
Over the years, the Grolier had become a focus of poetic activity in the Cambridge area, itself a magnet for American poets because of the influence of Harvard University. Poets such as John Ashbery, Robert Bly, Robert Creeley, Donald Hall, and Frank O’Hara were regulars at the store during their time as undergraduates at Harvard. The poet Conrad Aiken lived upstairs from the store in its early days.
Numerous other poets and writers are noted as “friends of the Grolier,” including Russell Banks, Frank Bidart, William Corbett, E. E. Cummings, T. S. Eliot, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, David Ferry, Allen Ginsberg, Denise Levertov, Marianne Moore, Charles Olson, Robert Pinsky, Adrienne Rich, Ruth Stone, James Tate and Franz Wright, to name just a few.
The bookstore claims to be the oldest continuous bookshop devoted solely to the sale of poetry and poetry criticism.
This September it will be 95 years old.
I was committed to keeping up with the rest, going to law school and succeeding — and I did. But I couldn’t forget the voices at Grolier and my prior fear of admitting out loud I wanted to be a poet.
When my travels would lead me to Boston, I would always go back to make sure it was still there. I would always buy a book or two to justify my visit and my love of lounging there for awhile.
Last Saturday, I was in Cambridge. I brought two copies of my first book of poems, An Accidental Diary, to give to friends I planned to see.
That morning in the hotel room, an idea hit me. I looked up the Grolier Poetry Bookstore and before I let better judgment kick in I called and asked for the proprietor, James Fraser. I told him I had two copies of a book, explaining one poem was runner up for the Robert Frost Foundation Poetry Award and another had been chosen for an upcoming anthology in Baltimore. I asked him if he would consider putting them up for sale on the shelves.
I told James I had been going into the bookstore for over 50 years and had studied with Professor William Alfred and Elizabeth Bishop whose books were on the shelves and pictures on the walls.
He invited me to drop by. I immediately walked my two books over and told him more of my story. I encouraged him to read “Summer Thunderstorms” and “The Facts of Life” to show the range of the work.
He leafed through the book as we continue to talk. There were a few people browsing as there always are and I took a moment to take a deep breath and just be surrounded by the place.
James looked up and smiled. He took both books out of my hand, looked up at me again, took one for the shelf and then put one book prominently in the front window.
Things this wonderful don’t really happen in real life but sometimes they do.
When I walked back to the hotel empty-handed looking down at the pavement with a stupid grin on my face, I felt like I had circled the bases on the sandlot!
I had always dreamed about the big leagues. But after a very long time my dreams and my future were again one.
(“An Accidental Diary” is also available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle.)