A Niche Amid a Sea of Giants

Unnamed photo
Ayla N. Bloomberg

Small corner stores can still make big gestures.

“We had Salman Rushdie booked for the week the fatwa was issued,” the owner of the Harvard Book Store, Frank Kramer, excitedly explained while pointing to a promotional poster for Rushdie’s appearance on the wall. “Borders and Waldenbooks pulled his books from their displays, but we talked to all our employees and said, ‘You don’t have to work now if you don’t want to, but we’d like to keep the books up.’”

Kramer has run the Harvard Square landmark since 1962—witnessing renovations, expansions, and the openings and closings of several satellite stores—and his experience in retail has made him a passionate believer in the benefits of locally owned businesses over chains, such as Borders or Waldenbooks.

With the recent opening of an International House of Pancakes branch, and Qdoba’s plan to begin selling burritos in the Square this March, chain stores are increasingly entering the Cambridge market. Kramer and a group of other local business owners banded together last year to form a coalition, Cambridge Local First, dedicated to reversing this trend.

The group seeks “to raise awareness among consumers, businesses, and government agencies of the importance of buying locally,” according to the group’s Web site.

DAVID VERSUS GOLIATH

Kramer says his strong belief in helping local businesses compete with chains stems in part from his own trying experience as a local business owner competing against a non-local store.

Gesturing to a framed New York Times review of his former Harvard Book Store Café, Kramer speaks enthusiastically about its Newbury Street location and menu prepared by a “world-class chef.”

But the store faced stiff competition with the arrival of a chain bookstore called Waterstone’s, which had a significantly larger inventory than the Harvard Book Store Café, he says.

According to Kramer, however, the final nail in the coffin came not from Waterstone’s but his own landlord, who refused to renew the lease on his store.

“If the landlord had been supportive, we would have been able to survive,” Kramer says. “The customer base was there—they wanted to support us.”

The café provides an example of just how critical a supportive landlord can be in helping local stores survive. The experience was not lost on Kramer, who says that one of Cambridge Local First’s main objectives is “to encourage [property] owners to fill their spaces with local businesses.”

BOOKSTORES TAKE THE LEAD

Both Kramer and Simon E. Shapiro, owner of Tags Ace Hardware, share concerns about the future of local businesses in Cambridge’s changing retail environment.

“The concept of being concerned about locally owned business started with Frank Kramer and myself working with Michael Sullivan when he was mayor,” Shapiro says.

“Frank and I kind of discussed it for a year, and around June of 2005, we met with Laury Hammel, and he’s the one who pulled it together into a point of reality.”

Hammel co-founded a national organization called the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE) that currently coordinates 37 chapters across the country, including Cambridge Local First. A Cambridge resident himself, Hammel was particularly interested in starting a chapter in his hometown.

“I met [Frank] in spring of 2005 and just called him up because I was recommended to talk to him by a bookseller in San Francisco,” Hammel says. “Bookstores have definitely taken the lead across the country on this issue,” he says. “By definition, bookstore owners are more thoughtful and more aware of sort of what shapes our society and our economy.”

Kramer agrees, offering his own rationale for the importance of bookstores in organizing BALLE chapters.

“First, bookstores tend to be community centers and to have good communications programs already going,” he says. “Not every retailer has customers that expect to hear from them.”

Kramer has vigorously promoted the fledgling organization over the past year by trying to raise awareness of local business issues among his customers. His Web site recently contained a special section devoted to the benefits of locally owned business.

Kramer says that his customers have responded positively to his advocacy: “When you have a customer base that supports you, they love to see you doing things that are good for you.”

Cambridge Local First has grown to include over 150 local businesses, many of whom proudly display their memberships and support by placing decals in their windows—something Kramer says he considers to be a critical component of the organization’s campaign to raise awareness of having local businesses in the community.

“It’s an education process,” Kramer says. “We believe that the Cambridge residents are receptive to these ideas, and Harvard University has learned that students don’t want an area filled with chains.”

Hammel says the campaign to educate Cantabrigians had been a “tremendous success in a very short time,” citing his observation that the population is now more aware of “the fact that when you buy from a local business, more money stays in the community than from a chain.”

The organization is trying to expand its visibility in the community and continue reaching out to residents who are currently unaware of its objectives.

“We’re putting a directory out in a few weeks, a directory of 160 locally owned businesses,” Hammel says. “This directory is going to be a big help in letting people know which businesses are locally owned.”

Hammel acknowledged that they have not actively influenced public policy thus far, but nonetheless, Kramer has hopes for the group’s future impacts on Cambridge’s attitudes toward local business.

“We haven’t got the active support of the city, and we’d like to see that happen, but we are growing.”