'Mayor' Cohen of Harvard Square Marks His 25th Year of Business
They say that Harvard is a sheltered community. Inside the gates of Harvard Yard one finds the disillusioned cynic who sees no purpose within the American system.
But right outside the gates is Sheldon Cohen, "the Mayor of Harvard Square" and owner of Out-Of-Town news service, who this summer celebrated his twenty-fifth anniversary of successful business in the Square.
Cohen describes Harvard Square as "a unique place where you can have everything."
Hard Work, Imagination and Goodness
"You can do anything if you just put your mind to it. If you work hard, if you have an imagination. If you're good to people, people will be good to you," Cohen said.
Cohen left school at the age of 16 to take over his father's small newspaper stand in the middle of Harvard Square, after having hawked newspapers in the Cambridge area for several years.
In 25 years he has become a central figure in more than Harvard Square's geography, acquiring important positions in its civic and business affairs.
Cohen first branched into magazine and out-of-town newspaper distribution in 1955, and sold his first foreign newspaper in 1957.
His kiosk now offers the only out-of-town news in Cambridge in addition to magazines, papers, and books which span most nationalities and interests--from Frau, Madame, and Ms. to Playboy and Sexology to Brides Magazine and Ladies Home Journal.
Since 1947 Cohen has expanded his holdings to include a ticket agency, Reading International. Harvard Campus News, and a directorship of Charlesbank Trust.
Cohen said he opened the ticket agency because "there was no such service in the community" and the bookstore "because I'd always wanted one."
Cohen attributes his success to his rapport with customers since the start of his news-selling career: "You can't lose touch with your own business. If you watch people, you learn what they want."
Cohen said he stills spends Saturdays and Sundays at his stand and invites comments through a suggestion box in order to keep touch with his customers' wishes.
Examples of Cohen's keep-in-touch policy: during the Democratic Convention, he flew in the Miami Herald daily to provide his readers with local reporting. He carried Dallas papers following John F. Kennedy's assassination and California papers following Robert F. Kennedy's death. Cohen also responded to the local Kennedy cult by selling the memorial recording of Kennedy's speeches.
Cohen said he stocks several southern newspapers to give retirement or vacation ideas to older customers. He said his out-of-town papers serve students' interest in their home towns and public interest in regional events.
'Helping People Find Themselves'
Cohen said he watches reports of immigration trends to serve growing ethnic groups in the area. "It's all part of helping people find themselves," he said.
In 1955 Cohen's involvement in civic affairs began with his membership on the Junior Chamber of Commerce. He is now director of the Cambridge Chamber of Commerce, works with a teenage employment service and the Office of Economic Opportunity.
In 1965 Cohen received two community service awards. "I had something to offer the people in the city and I've always believed in helping kids," he said.
I Can Only Do So Much, But...
Although Cohen said "there's only so many things you can do with yourself as a person," he plans to add other activities to his present collection.
He said that he hopes to apply "what I've learned from students" to future work in book or magazine publishing. Cohen lectured to the Harvard Publishing Procedures Course last summer on the interplay between magazine publishing and public response.
Looking back on his rise from hawker to Harvard lecturer and self-made success, Cohen said. "I believe in hard work and in helping people. It's part of life. This is a beautiful country.