Specialty Bookstores: Stories from the Square

Although the bookstore was founded by a German family, French books have since become Schoenhof’s predominant source of revenue. “The latest, hottest French novel” is always the most popular item in store, Eastman says, especially if it has recently been translated into English.

Eastman notes that people who learn French are more likely to continue reading French books than are students of other languages and that French tourists or French expats seem to be more interested in continuing to read in French than people from other European countries. He also describes Boston as “hugely francophilic.”

Schoenhof’s interaction with the French community doesn’t end with its most frequent book transactions. In 1978, a large French publishing conglomerate took over the business, after which things took a turn for the worse. On the verge of bankruptcy in 2005, Schoenhof’s was again sold to a private family.

Only now, as Schoenhof’s debt begins to subside, has business stabilized enough to allow for considerations of the bookstore’s interior improvement.

“As you can see, it looks like hell,” says Eastman, pointing at the carpet and bookshelves surrounding him. “The store needs to have more of an ambience, to create more enthusiasm—to facilitate that concept about being excited about having access to the opportunity to explore the world a little bit through literature.”




Ifeanyi A. Menkiti, born in Nigeria and now a professor of philosophy at Wellesley, is the owner of the oft-overlooked Grolier Poetry Book Shop, nestled behind the more prominent Harvard Bookstore.

Grolier, which opened in 1927, has struggled through several major financial difficulties throughout the years. Its second owner had just announced the shop’s closing in 2006 when Menkiti made the decision to rescue it.

“It was more like a labor of love,” Menkiti says. “If you had money to invest, the last thing you really wanted to do was put it into a bookstore.”

Menkiti, who can sometimes be spotted walking slowly down Plympton Street with a Dunkin’ Donuts coffee in hand, relies on his work at Wellesley to support his store. He is the first owner of Grolier to hire vendors to man the shop, he says, and his wife also stops by in the mornings to check on the shop.

Grolier often invites guest speakers for poetry readings and recitations—events that Menkiti says “encourage a meeting of world poets and world voices.”

Menkiti is himself a poet, writing about political history such as President John F. Kennedy’s assassination and South African activist Nelson Mandela’s life story.

“There’s so much that poets can do so we can accelerate the voices together,” Menkiti says. “That’s what got a crazy old man with the bookstore, when everyone is running away from it.”

Menkiti says he wants to stick with his little poetry shop, regardless of the difficulties of keeping it financially afloat.

“I know nothing about retail. I’m still trying to support this store,” Menkiti says. “I know there’s a lot of goodwill—people want this place to succeed so they can join this journey.”

—Staff writer Michelle B. Timmerman can be reached at

—Staff writer Xi Yu can be reached at