The ‘Death Zone’ For Harvard Square Businesses

It’s a little unnerving to see what are usually the busiest spots in the city so sparsely occupied. But with the spread of COVID-19 and a state- and nation-wide quarantine in effect, this is a new normal in Harvard Square. 

On March 11, Harvard University and other local colleges like MIT, Lesley University, and Cambridge College to name a few moved the remainder of the semesters off-campus and online, causing a mass exodus of the student population in the city. Additionally, the schools have postponed commencement ceremonies (with dates yet to-be determined.)  

“Half the time, it looks like you’re walking around on New Year’s Day at 7 AM,” says Laura Donohue, owner of stationary store Bob Slate Stationer on Brattle Street. “There’s nobody out there walking around right now shopping.”

Higher education is not only a huge part of the local culture, but students also contribute significantly to the local economy. The aforementioned colleges have nearly 35,000 undergraduate and graduate students combined. According to census data, around 30 percent of Cambridge’s population are enrolled in either a full or part-time degree program

Harvard Square is always a popular gathering spot for students, whether they are out socializing at bars and restaurants like Charlie’s Kitchen or patronizing funky shops like Leavitt & Peirce or the Harvard Book Store that give the area its local color. So how are local businesses coping with these sudden and necessary changes? The economic impact for some of these businesses is yet to be seen, though some owners have estimated that they will lose up to 40 percent of their business with students gone—even after quarantine is lifted. 

The Harvard Book Store is situated right in the heart of the square, meaning that a large slice of their business comes directly from Harvard University students and faculty. While Alex Meriwether, the book store’s general manager, doesn’t know exactly how much of his business comes from this community, he and his coworkers are bracing for impact. 

“Students are certainly part of our customer base, as is the whole college community, including faculty and administrators. Many of them our staff know by face and name when they come in,” he says. 

Much like the restaurant industry, which has pivoted to take-out and delivery options while eat-in bans are in effect, the Harvard Book Store has been exploring other methods of keeping business active during this time. 

“We’ve really ramped up our promotion and staffing of our web order business,” says Meriwether. “It’s been about pivoting and reinventing ourselves every two to three days almost. We have such a fantastic staff who are really dedicated to the store and to books and bookselling. People’s job descriptions are changing every day, to change with the landscape of where our business is coming from.”

In-store sales are one aspect of business, but events like author meet-and-greets have historically been a huge part of how the Harvard Book Store gets involved in the college community. 

“We do hundreds of author events a year, traditionally,” Meriwether says. “This was a big change in our business, to not have an author coming to the store every night presenting to a crowd of dozens, sometimes hundreds, of people.”

Echoing the actions of so many companies and individuals who are using video-conferencing software like Zoom to continue interacting with coworkers, friends, and family, the Harvard Book Store is also trying to keep the element of interaction alive.

“The virtual events are new and different,” Meriwether says. “I can definitely see us incorporating that in the potential experiences we can bring. It’s just never been the only way for customers to interact with us.”

Plenty of small and local businesses have online ordering set up to help keep them afloat at this time. But for Bob Slate Stationer owner Donohue, it’s not so simple. 

“If you don’t have a webstore, it’s not like you can just build one in a day.” 

While there are many options for online point-of-sales (POS) systems, these require photos of inventory, quantity of inventory, and several other pieces of data that require a lot of time to synchronize. 

“It’s something that we are going to have to do over the next few months,” she says. “But it is a non-trivial problem. Right now, our idea of online is a phone and an email.” 

“When you’re a local business, you rely on people who know who you are,” Donohue adds.

Being situated right in Brattle Square, a few steps from Harvard campus, this is critical for business at Bob Slate. 

“It’s not just students who are gone—it’s faculty, residents, and administrators. There’s no way to replace that revenue,” she says. 

With all of those students gone for the foreseeable future, it’s almost as if the city is suspended in one long summer vacation—a slow season for business owners who rely on student traffic. 

On April 13, Harvard announced that summer courses will also move to an online format. It is now being discussed that campus closures will even extend into the fall. 

“In May and June, you see a big uptick in sales for graduation,” Donahue says. “Usually, July and August are what I call the ‘death zone.’ It’s about six weeks. After that, you’re usually in full swing again by the end of August.” 

For these businesses in Harvard Square who rely on the increased business from campus populations—not to mention business from visiting tourists—it poses a concerning situation for local business owners over the long term, many of whom are just hoping to stay afloat through the next few weeks. 

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