For 79 years, Grolier Poetry Book Shop on Plympton Street in Harvard Square was owned, operated, and frequented primarily by white Cambridge residents.
In 2006, however, Ifeanyi A. Menkiti broke the mold, becoming the first Nigerian-born immigrant to own the oldest continuously running bookshop dedicated to poetry in the nation.
Though Menkiti died in 2019, the bookshop remains in his family and has strived to make poetry more inclusive, according to his daughter Ndidi N. Menkiti ’06.
“I think it’s a little bit exciting and revolutionary that my dad, as a Nigerian immigrant, bought this store that was located in the middle of Harvard and kind of was a boys’ club place for the likes of Robert Lowell and Eliot,” she said.
Grolier Poetry Book Shop is now one of a handful of black-owned businesses in Harvard Square making strides in diversifying small business ownership.
Today, there is a “lot of diversity” among business owners in Harvard Square, according to Denise A. Jillson, executive director of the Harvard Square Business Association, but there are still “hurdles that many members of the BIPOC community have to encounter.”
“We do not have enough Black-owned businesses,” Jillson said.
In recognition of Black History Month, The Crimson interviewed three prominent Black business owners in Harvard Square to share their stories.
Karine Ernest, owner of Le Macaron French Pastries’ Cambridge location, was born in Haiti and immigrated to the United States when she was four.
Raised primarily in Boston, she said being a business owner was “definitely something that was inspiring” for her and something that she always wanted to do.
After graduating from Wellesley College with a dual degree in Economics and French, she worked in telecommunications, but was always drawn to the world of entrepreneurship.
“I always had that little bug in my ear — somehow be an entrepreneur,” Ernest said.
Returning to business school for an MBA at Babson College was no small feat for Ernest, given that she was raising two children at the time.
After graduating with a “child on the hip,” she learned of the Le Macaron chain.
“I completely fell in love. I love the business model. It was simple, and it was definitely something I felt comfortable with. I love the product,” Ernest said.
“And so we opened up August 12 of 2022 in Harvard Square, and we have a fabulous location,” she added.
Securing a franchise location, however, can be particularly “difficult” for Black small business entrepreneurs like herself, Ernest said.
“You found the perfect space. You have the qualifications. Why is the landlord considering someone else that doesn’t seem as qualified?” she said.
“You start to wonder, is it a racial thing? Is it because I’m Black? That’s always in the back of your mind,” she added.
Doing business in Cambridge has been a “wonderful experience,” Ernest said, but she acknowledged that developing the kind of support network and finding the right “allies” can be challenging for other Black business owners.
“I think, as a Black entrepreneur, oftentimes that’s something that we don't have,” Ernest said. “I was fortunate that I had a lot of people that I could reach out to and ask questions.”
For Ernest, opening Le Macaron’s Harvard Square location was an “incredible achievement.”
“I think we’ve been very welcomed and accepted by the community,” Ernest said, “And we’re excited to break some barriers — a milestone so to speak.”
Oggi Gourmet owner Steve Welch was born on the small Caribbean island of Montserrat.
Studying fashion merchandising in college, he said he did not initially have plans to become a business owner.
“I really didn’t set out to be one. It just sort of happened,” Welch said.
To Welch, being a business owner in Harvard Square is like “being the older brother sometimes and seeing kids grow up.”
Welch added he does not believe he has experienced any particular challenges beyond those faced by most businesses.
“I felt comfortable when I came here. I just wanted to blend in. I didn’t want them to see me as a Black-owned business,” Welch said. “I just want to be, again, another good restaurant that came to Harvard Square.”
He likened the Harvard business community to a “big fabric” — one that encompasses people from “all walks of life.”
“It was like a quilt to me. And I brought my little section of the quilt and blended it with this restaurant and that business over there,” Welch said. “You’ve got to find your balance. Find your niche.”
Ifeanyi Menkiti — the late owner of Grolier Poetry Book Shop — bought the establishment because he believed that the shop was a “cultural institution that needed to survive,” according to his daughter Ndidi Menkiti.
“My dad was a huge believer in the arts and culture and community, and so he was really in love with this idea of art forms that are universal, like poetry, music, drama,” Menkiti added.
Ifeanyi Menkiti earned his PhD in philosophy from Harvard in 1974 and later became a professor at Wellesley College, with his scholarly work focusing on African traditional thought. He merged his penchant for poetry with this academic work as Grolier’s owner.
His background was “so different from a lot of other people in Cambridge” which helped him to “form these friendships and these bonds that endears him to a lot of different people,” according to his daughter.
“We’ve just sort of made it our mission to continue to support and expand the international voices and future queer poets and poets of color,” Menkiti added.
—Staff writer Caroline K. Hsu can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @CarolineHsu_.
—Staff writer Sidney K. Lee can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @sidneyklee.