For Class of ’57, A Different Square

Storeowners lament the changing face of Harvard Square

For the returning Class of 1957, it would be easy to miss Charlie’s Kitchen. Hidden among high-end shoe stores, overpriced novelty shops, and expensive restaurants, its neon sign advertising its famous “Double Cheeseburger” struggles to compete with established chains like Uno’s or Legal Sea Foods. But step inside and you are instantly transported back to 1953, the last time Charlie’s Kitchen changed its menu.

Finishing up the last of the lunch crowd, waitress Helen T. Metros takes a break in one of the restaurant’s signature red and black booths. Metros, who has worked in Harvard Square for 54 years, vividly recalls its 1950s intimacy.

“It was so friendly back then. It was a community where you could go anywhere and you’d have a good time. It was like visiting a relative,” she says.

Nowadays, she would like to bring back “part of that old time, warm feeling, before it was so commercialized.”

Upstairs in his cramped, third-floor office, Harvard Square store owner Edward P. VerPlanck agrees. He bought Dickson Bros. general store, founded in 1943, over 40 years ago.

In a faded work shirt and khaki pants, VerPlanck slowly removes his glasses and laments the difficulty of being one of the last of the older stores in the Square.

“It hasn’t been fun because you become acquainted with the people and all of a sudden a new store comes and if you don’t go after them, you don’t know who’s who,” VerPlanck said. “You lose the community feel.”

Now he constantly finds himself in the difficult position of explaining to returning visitors that their favorite establishments have closed.

“I see people around the Square and they look lost,” VerPlanck observed. “I ask, ‘Can I help you find something?’ and they answer, ‘Well it used to be here, and now it’s not.’”

Rupert A. M. Davis has worked in the Square for over 30 years and manages Schoenhof’s Foreign Books. Founded in 1856, it is one of the oldest stores in the Square. For him, the Square’s changes have meant more than just a loss of familiarity.

“Unfortunately it’s lost a lot of its texture,” Davis said. “When I first knew it, there were a lot more interesting stores. The funky places have completely evaporated as people get priced out.”

While many Harvard Square veterans lament the movement from independently owned establishments to chain stores, Harvard alumni seem to accept it as understandable change.

Murray L. Levin ’57 remembers browsing through Schoenhoff’s as an undergrad and still believes in the vitality and romance of the Square.

“These are changes which our society has seen and they have affected the Square as they have changed other parts of our society,” Levin said.

While new restaurants have replaced such old favorites as Elsie’s, the Wurst House, and The Tasty, new is not necessarily better.

“I won’t say that its progress,” remarked Gordon A. Tripp ’57. “It’s change—some is progress and some is retrogression.”

—Logan R. Ury can be reached at loganury@fas.harvard.edu.