The (Un)Changing Face of Harvard Square

Photos by Shef Reynolds.

Every neighborhood worth its zip code has at least one place that feels eternal—the mom-and-pop drugstore that seems to get its stock straight from the ‘50s; the barbershop that’s on its ninth or tenth presidential administration; the corner pub where the only things that seem to change are the taps. These quintessential local fixtures are equal parts convenient directional landmark and vital component of communal history—the kinds of places that were around long before you got there, and will probably be still selling lozenges, buzzing cuts and tending bar long after you’re gone.

The more venerable neighborhoods might have a couple such places. Three or four, and it’s a decent bet you’ll find some nifty historical markers and a graveyard nearby. Five or six, and you’re either in Bedford Falls or Disneyland.

And then there’s Harvard Square.

Even in a city that values its heritage as much as Cambridge does, no other neighborhood can come close in terms of the sheer number and staying power of local retailers. In those few blocks between the boathouse and First Parish Church, you’ll find more than a thousand years of collective independent business history. You could pick up some foreign reading material at Schoenhof Books, get a good chunk of your holiday shopping done at Leavitt & Peirce, score a snazzy new suit at J. August and get a little taken off the top at La Flamme Barbershop, all without leaving the 19th century (est. 1856, 1881, 1891 and 1898 respectively).

Local, independent business is alive and well in Harvard Square. So why do we keep reading its obituary?

A BAD “TASTE” IN THE MOUTH

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The bar at Charlie’s Kitchen.

 

Despite the wealth of living, purchasable history, prevailing opinion has been that the Square is perched precariously on the verge of Losing It All, those mom-and-pops just moments away from making room for yet another froyo chain. Ever since the Tasty Sandwich Shop (est. 1916) closed its doors in 1997—replaced soon after by branches of Abercrombie & Fitch and Pacific Sunwear and then Citizen’s Bank—there have been over a dozen Harvard Crimson op-eds bemoaning the death of the Square’s unique character, ranging from the wistfully contemplative “The Changing Face of Harvard Square,” to the downright dramatic “Goodbye, Harvard Square Culture.”

Most recently, when news broke in October that Upstairs on the Square (est. 1982) would be closing after one last New Year’s bash, more elegies for The Old Harvard Square echoed around the blogosphere. But, while Upstairs is unarguably a tangible loss to the community, what is debatable is how accurate it is as an ill omen; the decision had nothing to do with business itself—which, by all accounts, was quite healthy—and instead were the result of the landlord selling the property. While there’s definitely a story there about the struggles of running an independent business, it isn’t the front-line dispatch of yet another casualty in the Wal-Mart wars it was immediately treated as.

Now, the big-boxification of American business is a reality, full-stop. But to accentuate the potential negatives of what could happen to Harvard Square, rather than the overwhelming positive of the Square’s surviving success stories, does a tremendous disservice to those businesses and to the community that keeps them doing what they do best. Instead of another hasty eulogy, here, the Scout will be taking a look at the businesses that have endured, and why.

PUT THAT IN YOUR PIPE

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Grolier Poetry on Plympton Street.

For starters, we’re not just talking about your run-of-the-mill five and dimes—just to name a few, Harvard is home to one of the nation’s most historic independent movie theaters, the Brattle (est. 1953), one of only two poetry bookshops in the country, the Grolier, (est. 1927), folk music and stand-up comedy meccas, Club Passim (est. 1958) and the Hong Kong (est. 1954), and the rather self-explanatory World’s Only Curious George Store (est. 1995).

Of course, any mention of  Harvard’s more unorthodox offerings wouldn’t be complete without the very definition of sui generis, Leavitt & Peirce.

The fact that a tobacco shop could be thriving in the heart of ultra-health conscious Cambridge would seem to defy explanation. But for Denise Jillson of the Harvard Square Business Association (itself over a century old, est. 1910) Harvard Square is really all the explanation you need.

“When it comes to Leavitt & Peirce … now, just think about how few people smoke these days, but every day people go in there that want to leave with something. How do you qualify that kind of success?”

While convenience might reign elsewhere as the chief consumer concern, the Harvard Square community manages to put a premium on the social and sustainable—allowing for niche or specialized businesses, such as Felix Shoe Repair (est. 1913) or Brattle Square Florist (est. 1925) to compete in a modern economy.

Not that Harvard businesses aren’t convenient—far from it. Ned VerPlanck of Dickson Bros. Hardware (est. 1943) credits their longevity to keeping things accessible and focusing on the needs of their neighbors, the customers that matter. “We keep things current, but focus on the basic … we don’t try to get too elaborate, or get out of everyone’s comfort zone—nothing too high-tech or froo-froo. We’re a convenience store for people. We hit the core people that are within a mile.

“People say to us all the time, ‘I’m glad you’re still here.’ Ordering from the internet or big box stores it’s not convenient for them. These people are local-oriented. Our customer base is close.”

As Jillson puts it: “That’s part of what makes Harvard Square genuinely the kind of place that needs a tailor, needs a dry cleaner—those kind of businesses are sustainable here.”

A NOT-SO-BLANK SLATE
It’s one thing for Harvard Square to be able to sustain these niche businesses—it’s another thing entirely to bring them back from the brink.

Two years ago, when Bob Slate Stationer announced that it was shuttering all three stores, including the landmark Brattle Street location that it had occupied since 1933, local media didn’t hesitate to sound a funeral dirge for the bygone era of service-oriented specialty retail that Slate perfectly represented.

But a mere eight months later, Bob Slate was once more open for business, with a lot of the same staff and even more of the same clientele. Laura E. Donohue, a former Harvard and MIT student who had been shopping at Slate since the ‘80s, was so distraught by the news of Slate’s closing that she decided to keep it open herself.

“Nowadays, you walk into Bob Slate, and really, there’s no way of knowing that they’re under new management,” says Jillson. “It’s really a testament to this community that sheer market force, along with a willing young entrepreneur, brought it back.”

While Slate’s resurrection is remarkable, it’s only one of many such success stories. When the Curious George Store at the heart of JFK Street announced that it was closing, Adam Hirsch, then head of corporate sales and marketing at Next Step Living, rallied the community to save it, pulling together an impressive collection of investors, ranging from Houghton-Mifflin to the University itself, to save it, resurrecting and re-branding as The World’s Only Curious George Store.

Those are only the most extreme examples—Out of Town News, the Grolier Poetry Bookshop, even the “How about them apples?” Dunkin Donuts of Good Will Hunting fame all announced they were on the verge of shutting down, only to be saved by the support of the community. While not all these efforts have been successful—the loss of the Bow and Arrow Pub (est. 1971), despite numerous petitions and campaigns, comes to mind—it can’t be said that the Harvard Square community will let a beloved local business go without a fight.

LOCAL, INDEPENDENT, AND ORGANIC

Harvard-14Of course, no neighborhood is immune to change, and Harvard Square is no exception. There have been significant losses over the years, particularly among restaurants—from Casablanca (est. 1955) to the Wursthaus (est. 1917), the not-yet-late-but-still-lamented Upstairs on the Square and, of course, the still-sore wound of the Tasty Sandwich Shop. But with new local businesses like Tasty Burger (est. 2013), down the street from the the old Tasty, flourishing while the chains still struggle to establish a foothold, changes in the neighborhood do not mean erosion of its unique identity.

For Tasty Burger co-owner and Cambridge native Dave DuBois, it’s about finding a way to preserve the history of the Square, while still providing something new. “Having grown up in Cambridge and with my first jobs working in Harvard Square, I believe the Square was and is Downtown Cambridge. We have lost many great locals over the years and The Tasty Diner was one of the biggest losses. Tasty Burger relished the opportunity to bring back inexpensive burgers and dogs to the Square, serving until 4am just like the old Tasty did. It is our homage to the history of the Square, much like the 1970’s photo of the Tasty Diner that adorns the first floor wall, or the framed original Tasty Diner Tee Shirt in our lower level.

“I had my first Bartley’s burger when I was seven, my first Charlie’s Double Cheeseburger Special when I was twelve. Here I am today with my own burger place in the Square, despite which I am still grabbing burgers at these iconic restaurants.”

Great concepts that mesh with the Harvard Square vibe—like The Tannery (est. 1981) and Berk’s (est. 1982)—will find their place, while corporations looking to cash in on tourist dollars are in for a rude awakening.

As DuBois points out, this isn’t just a series of happy accidents—more and more landlords have come to understand that there’s good business in good businesses.

“Honestly, we are only there because of the vision of our landlords to design a renaissance in the Square, opting for great local restaurants and shops, late night food options and music venues instead of Big National chains and banks willing to pay more … but offering so much less. Harvard Square has always been eclectic and varied. Nationals and locals have been able to survive there fairly well together, but in my humble opinion, it only works when there is balance of the two. The periods when the scales are tipped too far in one direction make for a diminished Downtown Cambridge.”

Jillson sums it up best: “Change in the Square is very organic … businesses grow over time. Places come and go, but what’s important is what type of business remains constant. That’s what makes me so proud to live here in Cambridge, where people really treasure history, tradition and a great concept.”

So in Harvard Square, from the Tasty to Tasty Burger, from Leavitt & Peirce to … Leavitt & Peirce, the truism rings true: the more things change, the more they stay the same.

And as far as the Harvard Square community is concerned, more of the same is a very good thing.

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