My past 50 years have been “lived” on Plympton Street: first as a neophyte bookseller, then as an actual one. My introduction to the shop came in 1956. The shop, with its worn couch, its even more battered armchair, its dark-grained bookshelves, and a table piled high with books, was the perfect fantasy bookshop. Friends, acquaintances, whatever literary light was in town would drop by to visit the shop and to meet the owner Gordon Cairnie. He was purported to have hosted the first painting exhibition of e.e. cummings, to have stocked copies of the first printing of Ulysses smuggled in under the coats of various customers and, much later, to stock copies of W.H. Auden’s “Platonic Blow.”
When I came in a variety of groups ran parallel to each other. The first group I met was the international set, primarily from M.I.T. and the Harvard Business School. They held lively parties–probably the liveliest in Cambridge. As an aside, the members of The Harvard Advocate certainly knew how to party as well. The third was composed of Horace Reynolds, the translator, George Palmer, the poet who published under the name of George Anthony, Gunther Neufeld, an art critic from Germany, George Burroughs, once the head of the WPA Writers Project in Hawaii who had become a Harvard policeman, Jennie Tutin, the widow of a former bookseller, and Edith, the original founder of what became the Starr bookstore.
The poets formed the fourth group. The one I never met was Frank O’Hara. My memory of Ashbery I’m afraid is tinged by an unfortunate encounter with his partner. Others I had met were Donald Hall, Peter Davison, Adrienne Rich, Phil Levine, Stephen Sandy, Robert Creeley (unknown to each other, we were judges for the 1987 American Awards and met at the reception), Robert Kelly, Allen Ginsberg, and Peter Orlovsky. “Howl” had just been published to be immediately banned in public and on the airwaves. Rumor had it that Ginsberg had staged a reading on the steps of the Grolier; the police then shut it down. After Ginsberg’s death, a group of us challenged the obscenity ruling. We staged, sponsored by The Boston Phoenix, the first reading of “Howl” on evening radio. The challenge was not met.
Robert Duncan, Charles Olson, Joel Oppenheimer, David Rattray all were introduced to me through the kind offices of Elsa Dorfman the photographer. She was also the founder of the Paterson Society which put “The Beats” on the public road. David was a friend of John Wieners and once entertained me with anecdotes about him. The most bizarre was a night in New York when both were stoned and ended up on a rooftop. David told me that while Wieners intoned “fire, fire” all night hitting every possible sound combination, David was standing over him threatening bodily harm; I was told this situation continued until daybreak. John, of course, continued.
I met Kerouac in the early sixties when he read at Lowell House. That was quite a night. I got into the reading (I was late) through the persuasions of Desmond O’Grady. He haunted the Grolier when he was drunk. When he was sober, he was incredible, and every scene was a movie. He worked with William Alfred, the playwright and poet. To most of us, he was the stereotypical wild Irish poet who strode through the world bringing an almost magical power. Much later on, I met James Merrill and attended his reading of the first portion of The Changing Light at the Boston Athenaeum. The setting was old Boston, the light from the podium lit up his face, he read with elaborate gestures; it was dramatic, it was fascinating, it was perfect.
Another poet I met who read for me later on was Richard Howard. I heard him read from his Baudelaire, “Les Fleurs Du Mal” (David Godine). He read at the gallery that hung the originals of Michael Mazur that were used as illustrations for that book. In full black attire, against a backdrop, he hissed the words over his shoulder at his audience in truly a sinister manner; it was very effective. Later, I met both again at a party hosted by a friend on Beacon Hill. Merrill was seated on a couch in the living room; Howard held court in the hallway. I was most definitely the oddity there. My presence was graciously accepted by Merrill who welcomed me. Howard chose to ask with not much friendliness, “And who are you?”
I have been granted many memories not the least inspired by Juan Plascencia, lise Paschen, Carol Moldaw, Martin Edmunds, Julie Agoos, Winsome Brown, Andrew Osborn, Jonathan Wiener, Mikel Colson and Matt Corriel.
My very favorite memories are of that most beautiful dogwood tree beside Apthorp House, the view (before Quincy House was built) from the Grolier down to the River, and, my very best, the students streaming down Plympton Street.
Louisa Solano was the owner of the Grolier Poetry Bookshop on Plympton Street from 1974 to 2006.