Charles Square: Catering to the Elite

"What, You Haven't Been to Charles Square?" asked the voice on the radio in last spring's advertisement campaign to promote the Cambridge's newest indoor mall located on Bennett St. next to the Charles Hotel.

Since its grand opening 20 months ago, the Charles Square shopping complex has stumbled over some rough obstacles, some of which are still being smoothed out: four shops have moved out; the mall is situated out of the Harvard Square traffic flow, and some perceive it as overpriced for the college market.

But proprietors there say Charles Square is emerging finally as a sophisticated, stable shopping arena which is cultivating its own clientele.

And other local businessmen say Charles Square mall--along with the Charles Hotel, luxury condominiums and office space--has extended shopping, business and residential opportunities to what was previously a little used commercial part of the Square. "Their presence enhances the rest of Harvard Square," says Sally Alcorn, executive director of the Harvard Square Business Association.

Brian Delaney, manager of Pier One Imports onEliot Street across from Charles Square, agrees."We're no longer in dead space. Now we're a bufferzone," he says about one of the first "propertyprojects" in Cambridge.

Customer Flow Problems?

In the past year alone, four stores--Goods,Sweet Stuff, Harlyn's and New Zealand Sport--haveclosed, while 19 current retailers have remainedthe mall's prime draws.

"Goods oriented their products toward adifferent clientele. They carried junky thingslike Urban Outfitters, which are fun, but we don'tneed another one," says Nancy J. Venti, owner ofThe Papermint, located on the lower level ofCharles Square.

Some managers at Charles Square speculate thatthese closings were due to management troubles.But most say that the stores which failed dependedupon a heavy flow of customers walking throughoutthe mall.

"Some stores needed to be in a high trafficarea," says Crabtree & Evelyn General Manager MarkHochman. Crabtree & Evelyn, which sells floralscents and toiletries, also has a store in FaneuilMarketplace but, according to Hochman, bothlocations are successful. What distinguishesCrabtree & Evelyn from Sweet Stuff and Goods--twoformer tenants of Charles Square also located inFaneuil Market--is the shop's reliance on"destination shoppers," Hochman says.

"We have people who come here [Charles Square]for one particular store," Hochman says. "We havea different clientele than in Faneuil Hall. We mayget less people, but the average sale is higher,"he adds.

Other managers agree with Hochman's assessment."The stores that have their own following willsurvive, but other stores like Sweet Stuff won'tmake it here," says the manager of Talbot's, awoman's clothing chain with 100 stores across thecountry.

"We just weren't getting the people," saysSweet Stuff's assistant manager Donald O'Hare, whoworked at the Charles Square confectioner's beforeits closing last May. O'Hare attributes the lackof traffic in the mall to the Square's location,which is one of the problems even the successfullyestablished businesses are still facing.

"People still have the psychological blockwhich prevents tham from making that walk fromHarvard Square," says Katharine Duff manager ofthe woolen goods store Simon Pearce. Despite thedistance, however, Duff says that judging fromSimon Pearce income figures, business is improvingeveryday. "We're going in the right direction. Themall is just taking longer to get started thanpeople thought, she says.

"The location is horrible," says one storemanager. "People in Belmont and Cambridge stilldon't know we're here."