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A Roomful of Books

Circling the Square

By Stephen C. Clapp

The sign hanging in front of the Grolier Book Shop is faded--dingy, by some people's standards--and you have to climb five steps to enter the store. For that matter, there aren't any bargain sales, used book tradeins, or neat stacks marked with course titles; most students hunting for textbooks leave the store on Plympton Street in a matter of seconds.

Actually, Gordon Cairnie, the owner, prefers it that way. His shop is run for enjoyment and makes money only as a sideline; if he never sold a book all year, he would keep it open. But Gordon has plenty of company when he opens up each afternoon. Students browse or simply sit down in one of his easy chairs to read. A somewhat small, pink-cheeked man with a gray line of a moustache, Mr. Cairnie usually sits in the far corner of a well-worn leather couch, skimming a catalogue or perhaps talking to a tutor, a Cambridge poet, or a student he knows well. His books, most of them first editions, stand in wall shelves or lie scattered at random on a large table in the center of the room. A shiny blue Anchor Books stand adds the one note of trimness and order to the place.

Gordon himself came accidentally into book-selling on Harvard Square. In 1922, he left a potato inspector job in Manitoba to study first landscape architecture, then English literature at the Graduate School. He was more interested in reading than exams, however, and bought so many books that he had to rent a room for them. Much of the present collection is new, but a few books survive from his days in Divinity Hall. "Twenty-eight hundred books," he says, explaining the shop. "I had to do something with them. I sold one just the other week. This fellow came in, said he'd been looking for a certain biography of John Greenleaf Whittier. Well, I had it. Mint condition, too--people don't browse through a book like that very often. He said he'd been hunting for the thing for three years. I told him he should have come to me--I've had it for thirty."

Gordon is particular about his shop hours; he doesn't like to unlock before noon. "There isn't much happening around here in the morning. I used to open up quite a bit in the morning, but the only person who came to see me then was T. S. Eliot's sister-in-law." Afternoons, however, the Grolier Book Shop becomes a community haven and meeting place. Last year, a girl working on a novel used the back room of his shop. Standing on Gordon's bookshelves are the drawings and water-colors of whatever unknown artist he happens to be be-friending. Some of his customers have keys themselves and if he is absent they will open the store for him, leaving money collected on a convenient table. Almost any customer may be put in charge, briefly, when the owner decides to leave for an afternoon cup of coffee.

More business-minded people have tried to buy his shop in the past, but Gordon Cairnie refuses to sell. More recently, he attracted some magazine publicity. "I got two letters from that article," he told me. "One was from a lady who makes hummingbird houses and the other was from a fellow who runs a book shop like mine. I guess he was just glad to find out there was somebody else like him in the world."

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