What’s In a Gnomon?

That which we call a copy shop, by any other word, would scan as sweet?

Gnomon Copy specializes in producing duplicates—but for too long, it’s sparred with a duplicate of itself.

The 99 Mt. Auburn Street copy shop formerly known as Gnomon is tossing its old name into the waste basket in favor of a flashier new title.

The name has long confused patrons of the basement-level shop, located just steps away from the Garage shopping center.

For one, what’s a gnomon?

And secondly, why is there another Gnomon just two blocks away, at 1304 Mass. Ave.?


Engineering graduate students at MIT launched Gnomon Copy out of their dormitory in 1966.

They plucked the name for their nascent company straight from a dictionary, according to one of the firm’s founders, John Sytek. “It’s a geometric figure that’s a parallelogram with another parallelogram cut out of the corner,” he said.

“Xerox was a short, unusual name for a good copy machine, so we wanted a short, unusual name for a good copy service,” said Sytek, a former nuclear engineer who later became a New Hampshire state legislator and is now a high school Latin teacher. “The fact that it was a geometric figure and we were engineers—it was serendipitous.”

The grad students were tired of paying 10 cents per photocopy at MIT. Seven years before, Xerox had debuted the first automatic plain-paper office copier, and the young engineers were eager to capitalize. “We got into it because at academic institutions, everyone was getting Xerox machines because of the demand there was for a quick, dry, skill-less copier.”

Xerox rented a machine to Sytek and his dorm mates—and it was a hit.

The founders made copies of their successful start-up—opening about a dozen branches in university towns across New England. Other Gnomons can still be found on Huntington Avenue in Boston, near Northeastern University, and near the campuses of Cornell and Dartmouth.

After stationing one shop at 99 Mt. Auburn Street, the chain opened an additional Harvard Square location on Mass Ave., across from the Yard, according to a 1971 Crimson report.

But as Gnomon grew, so did its competition. “People looked in our window and pretty soon everyone up and down the street was doing the same thing, and we had pretty much played out the interest we had,” Sytek said. “We didn’t have the business desire to do anything more—we were engineers.”


In the mid-1980s, the original founders began to sell their chain piecemeal to the different store managers they’d installed at their various locations.

“When we sold off, everyone wanted to keep using the name because of the tradition, because of the goodwill associated with it,” Sytek said.

And so it happened that Harvard Square found itself with two independently-run, competing copy shops with the same moniker.

But now it appears that the name wasn’t big enough for the both of them.
Seeking to separate itself from an eponymous rival, the Mt. Auburn Street shop is rechristening itself as FlashPrint.

On numerous occasions, clients who had previously discussed copy deals over the phone with the Mt. Auburn management would mistakenly take their business to the Mass. Ave. Gnomon, according to the Mt. Auburn shop’s owner, Alan Shapiro.

“It just becomes very frustrating,” he said. “So this is just the easiest way to separate ourselves—change the name.”

And yet, everything is still far from crystal clear.

According to Shapiro, his company will continue answering the phones with “Gnomon Copy” for the next couple of months while the name-change gains traction. 

The Harvard Square Business Association recently edited the entries for both Cambridge Gnomons on its website, mistakenly redesignating both of them FlashPrints. (An official at the association declined to comment on-the-record about the mix-up.)

And it’s hard not to notice the “Gnomon Copy” monogram on Mt. Auburn Street production manager Derek BenDavid’s button-down, or the fact that it is worn over a “Gnomon Copy” polo shirt.

While the Mass Ave. branch is keeping its Gnomon name, that hasn’t exempted it from confusion either.
When the Huntington Avenue Gnomon—which is now independent of both Harvard Square shops—reportedly paid $40,000 this year to settle a lawsuit brought by publishers alleging that it illegally reproduced copyrighted materials, word of the trouble surfaced in Cambridge.

“A person walked in and said, ‘Oh, I hear you’re being sued,’ and we said, ‘It’s not us,” recalled Michael Skikne, the owner of the Mass. Ave firm. “We don’t know anything about it except it’s not us.”