THE SQUARE DEAL

Rising rents in the Square create an inhospitable environment for student-centered businesses.

Read Block, a collection of buildings at the center of Harvard Square that once housed The Tasty, will soon be home to chain retailers Abercrombie & Fitch and Pacific Sunwear.

As semi-clad models began adorning this Square landmark, it seemed like sacrilege to many. But others say the death of independent stores in the Square has been greatly exaggerated.

In fact, Harvard Square Business Association statistics show that for every four independent businesses that opened in the Square last year, only one national chain debuted.

And this rate has remained fairly stable for years, says Kristin T. Sudholz, the association's executive director. Still, the type of independent businesses that are moving into the Square are one reason why the area is changing.

The end of rent control has meant that only upscale businesses--whether a chain or independent--can survive.

And so cheaper stores catering to a predominantly student crowd could be the real dinosaurs of the Square.

Gentrification: Myth or Reality?

Square business-people say rumors of gentrification and a chain-store invasion don't exactly describe the ongoing changes in the area.

They are quick to note that it is not only small businesses moving out of Harvard Square, mentioning the failure of national chains such as Foot Locker, Laura Ashley, and Benetton in recent years.

The biggest cause for change was the end of rent control, under which Cambridge set a ceiling on rents landlords could charge. Phased out by December 1996, rent control's end has made it possible for landlords to charge what the market will bear--often far more than mom-and-pop stores can afford.

"Central Square is becoming what Harvard Square used to be," says Phyllis Sterbakov of the Cambridge Chamber of Commerce. "Small businesses can experiment [there] and not have to worry [about] how they're going to pay the month's rent."

Square music store Briggs & Briggs recently moved to Porter Square after being located on Mass. Ave. in Harvard Square for 100 years. In the past year, Mass Army/Navy and Seven Stars bookstore have also relocated to Central Square. McIntyre & Moore Booksellers has also moved to Davis.

John DiGiovanni, president of Trinity Property Management, a real estate company with retail holdings in the Square, says he blames any "mallification" that is happening on the cutthroat nature of Square retail.

"Clearly a place that has name recognition has a leg up, and that's why people buy franchises--they're buying insurance," he says.

Though Trinity and Harvard University, which owns a fair amount of Square real estate, say they do not offer official "incentives" to small businesses, they do--contrary to popular belief--give those independent businesses preference.

Scott Levitan, Harvard's director of University and commercial real estate, says Harvard also prefers the little guy, trying above all to keep the businesses it currently houses in its buildings.

"We don't have many opportunities, but the turnover that we have had has been filled by tenants like Toscanini's which is a Cambridge store, and its owner is local," Levitan says.

End of Student Market

G. Pebble Gifford, president of the Harvard Square Defense Fund, says even if chains and independent stores alike face tough times, the change is ultimately away from the student market.

Inexpensive retailers and restaurants open late to catch the student crowd are scarcer than in the past, though the Square has never been held by many as a typical college area.

"There used to be stores for the students, but I'm told that students aren't buying that stuff anymore, that they go to malls and buy discount," Gifford says.

Cambridge resident Andrew Herrmann '82 says he agrees that the Square selection has changed since his days at the College.

"I don't know that overall it's changed for the worse. It's kind of fashionable to say that. The sad thing is that it's not really a college town anymore," Herrmann says.

Oona's, which sells used clothing and costumes, is one of the Square's constants and one that caters to the discount crowd. Owner Kathleen M. White says the change in the target market was driven by the hike in residential rents.

"When you look out the window, you see TV personalities walking by as opposed to kids with mohawks," White says. "I'd say the college kids are here, but the high school kids tend to go to Porter or Davis or Central."

Indeed, some say the kind of trendy, quirky neighborhood Harvard Square was traditionally touted as is now a more suitable label for these other squares.

The Upper Crust

Square retailers say this trend makes sense in the context of the area's consumer base. Tourists, wealthy area residents and visitors from elsewhere in the Boston area predominate, they say, and make an upscale Square possible.

Jessica LeBlanc, manager of the April Cornell clothing and housewares store on Brattle Street, says her store sells to "professors, teachers, and a lot of grand-mothers."

And with students eating most meals in the dining halls and selling most of their furniture upon graduating, Crate & Barrel, also on Brattle Street, admittedly peddles its wares to the non-student crowd.

No matter how much students and their defenders may gripe, it's the dollar that makes the decision.

"People might think the landlord chooses, but ultimately the consumer decides," DiGiovanni says.

And with the demise of rent control, the Harvard Square consumer needs a whole new type of store.

Sudholz describes today's Square shoppers--students included--as "a very international crowd, very affluent, very well-traveled, fairly well-educated, and the median income is a little higher than the national."

Jen Johnson says Harnett's is successful precisely because her store caters to this type of consumer--someone who has more money than she needs for basic living expenses.

Even the student base is more upscale than the stereotypical college area, making it possible for more upscale stores to bring in that customer traffic as well.

The Jasmine-Sola boutique on Brattle Street has recently begun catering more to its student shoppers by carrying clothing for juniors.

Gwen Trost, co-owner of the upscale Sandrine's Bistro on Holyoke Street, serves up some of the pricier entres in the Square, charging between $18 and $29 a plate for dinner.

Even so, Trost says a sizable portion--15 percent--of her business comes from the student population.

She says if the Square's business balance differs from that of other college neighborhoods, with McDonald's and 24-hour diners conspicuously absent, this difference only matches the uniqueness of Harvard's location and student population.

Working the Crowd

Both DiGiovanni and Sudholz stress that the key to success in the Square is knowing--and working--your niche.

Though businesses may try to chalk their failure up to gentrification or bad location, others say that like everywhere else you have to present something unique to be successful in the Square.

"We have businesses that break all the retail rules," she adds.

She cites the flourishing Upstairs at the Pudding restaurant on Holyoke Street, which has no street-level signage and occupies a third-floor walk-up--"retial suicide," Sudholz says.

Billings & Stover is one store that has kept its head above water by keeping its ear to the ground.

Owner Phyllis Madanian says the store has been hurt by HMOs and other health plans, which cap the prices for drugs.

"Some things we actually lose money on just to be able to keep our customers happy," she says.

But the store, which has stood near the corner of Brattle and Church Streets since 1854, has found ways to keep its head above water.

Though it removed its trademark soda fountain in 1947 when such fountains were going out of vogue, it reinstalled the fountain four years ago and found success.

Madanian says though new high rents have forced many of their longtime customers to depart, the new clientele is as much a fan as ever of the store's classic wares.

Madanian characterizes her store's best-sellers--the likes of shaving brushes, Mason-Pearson hairbrushes and Dr. Bronner's soap--as "old-time products but very good products that you don't find in discount stores."

Bowl & Board, whose elegant housewares fit the bill for upscale residents, has ridden many a trend in the past to stay profitable.

The store sold used fur coats and live plants in the '70s, and ethnic clothing from Mexico and India in the early '80s, but the Square's changing consumer made those lines obsolete, says owner Bill Giarrusso.

"People who enjoyed products from abroad...got into more of the contemporary shopping and shied away from the imported ethnic handcrafted items," Giarrusso says.

Cardullo's gourmet shop near the heart of the Square is also experiencing a renaissance with the influx of a different type of shopper.

The store began as the Square's sole international foods store, but its classy and cosmopolitan wares hold appeal for the new, sophisticated Square residents as well, says Donez Cardullo, granddaughter of the store's founder.

In the food business, Square stalwarts Mr. Bartley's and Charlie's Kitchen say a combination of tradition, charm and plain good food keeps them in business.

Explaining Abercrombie

Gifford says when Cambridge Savings Bank was in the process of deciding upon new tenants for the Read Block, the Defense Fund "begged them to go for a lot of small tenants rather than three big ones."

But Nelson Goddard of Cambridge Savings Bank says when the bank made the decision to give building space to Abercrombie & Fitch, Pacific Sunwear and Finagle a Bagel, there were not many other tenants interested in settling there.

"We put it on the market like any other piece of real estate," he says.

Goddard says the vendors chosen fit the bank's criteria--a good offer and good credit. Smaller stores looked at the building, he says, but did not make offers on it.

Jarold Kayden of the Harvard Graduate School of Design says it was reasonable--but also profitable--for the bank to look for these traits in its renters.

"When you're renting space, you're looking for a tenant who will pay," Kayden says, "but also who in combination with other tenants will produce the highest revenue for the site."

He says some might accept the crowding out of historic tenants if the building's exterior remains the same--hence the "historic renovation" of the Read Block, which Goddard simply blames on the Cambridge historic landmark ordinance.

"Some people may be uncomfortable with the way that we attempt to deal with economic change in the city. A frequent approach to allow change in a city is to preserve the physical appearance. This gives the public a sense of continuity," Kayden says.

What's Next

Both Kayden and Cambridge Mayor Francis H. Duehay '55 say some change is natural, even desirable, and trying to fight it is foolish.

"Historic preservation of buildings is one thing," Duehay says. "And historic preservation of businesses is another. Two hundred years ago, they may have been selling cornmeal in the Square. Do I think they should still be doing that? No."

For example, Kayden says, the Charles Hotel is actually an improvement upon the "historic" prior occupant of the same space--an old car barn for the MBTA.

It may come as a surprise that across the board, from administrators to new proprietors to the Square's old faces, every group holds optimistic proponents of the Square's new identity.

"People get sick of seeing the same shops in the Square that you can see in major malls throughout the country," Giarrusso says. "When they come into Bowl & Board, they see something completely different and it's helped us quite a bit."

So, rather than portending a "mallification" of the Square, recent trends may simply point to another kind of evolution--toward upscale, independent stores.

"The more people go around calling Harvard Square a mall, the more of a self-fulfilling prophecy it will be," Sudholz says. "People will stop coming here if they hear all it is is a mall. The people who [would] suffer the most from this are the small businesses."

Still, Sudholz says she remains positive about the future of business development in an evolving Square.

"We are still a niche for new and innovative businesses," she says. "No doubt about it."