Before I came to
Harvard, I was talking to one of my high school English teachers who had studied in Boston many years before.
"Oh, you'll have to visit this wonderful little cafe I once went to in Harvard Square," she gushed. "It has wonderful croissants and tea. What was its name? I can't remember. I think it was run by a Greek man. But, oh, with the sunlight coming through the windows and the leaves falling outside...it's just a great place in the fall."
I shrugged noncommittally at the time, somewhat attracted to the image she had created but afraid to believe it might still exist.
I have yet to find that cafe, and I don't know about watching leaves fall and sunshine streaming through windows in Harvard Square. But last week I found a place that reminded me of my English teacher's vision, in a strange kind of way.
The Brattle Square Florist Shop, I'm told, is the oldest store in Harvard Square. It's been run by the same family for the last 80 years. It supplies flowers to Harvard students who need them for room beautification, for formals, for heartfelt apologies. Most significantly, it captures the spirit of Cambridge in a way that many of its more recently-established neighbors (read: Store 24, CVS) do not.
My investigation of the quintessential Cambridge shop began with a quintessential Cambridge conversation. Armed with my pen, reporter's notebook and inquisitive look, I was approached by Mick. The old, orange-bearded homeless man asked if I needed help.
"Uh, no," I answered. "I was just looking for this flower shop here. I'm fine."
"Man, this place is great," Mick said. "It's where everyone around here gets their flowers, if you know what I mean. Yeah. Hey, you want me to draw you a picture of an eagle?" I let Mick sketch his prize in my notebook--it consisted of three curvy lines loosely drawn together--before directing my attention to the shop itself.
Tucked in between Brine Sporting Goods and Calliope, the Florist's facade is dominated by an overflowing display of green. And white. And red. And orange. And brown. I counted something like ten different colors of plants and flowers in the storefront, plus about one gazillion different tones of said colors. The visual effect can be dumbfounding; in my notebook I have one helpless observation: "flowers everywhere."
Smelling the roses for eighty years
I paused near the entrance to ask one girl why she had come to this particular florist shop. It turned out she was a Harvard student, just like many of the shop's other customers. "I'm a first-time buyer," Margaret Bordeaux `97 told me. "I was walking back from my job, and I saw all these pretty flowers. I just thought it would be nice to get something for the room."
That, I found out, is the attraction of Brattle Square Florist Shop. It pleases everyone, from the most serious horticulturalist to the flower novice who just wants to see life bloom on his or her desk every day during the cold winter months.
Toward the front of the store, different plants are suspended from the ceiling. They line both walls, several rows deep, and they also manage to totally obscure the floor--almost. Again, colors every-where. I was told later that the shop imports flowers from Holland, California, South America, Hawaii and Thailand. How can one choose, I wondered?
The faint smell of potpourri and the sounds of trucks and street musicians outside diminished as I tuned into the friendly banter between customers and the man at the cash register.
That man, tall and brown-haired and owner of a heavy Boston accent, turned out to be Steven. At 31, he is one of the store's junior partners. He's also part of the family that's been running the store since 1913. Steven's uncle Ted is the principal owner; his mom Catie and his brother John also help out. They all work six or seven days a week, and when they say work, they mean it.
"It's busy, but this is a fun place to work," Steven said. "The students have so many different events, and over four years you get caught up in their lives, you know?"
The shop's "friendliness," as one older customer termed it, might be expected from a place that has been owned by the same people for so long. Years ago, the Zedros and Gomatos clan owned a whole string of stores in Harvard Square, including a diner, a newsstand, and a fruit and vegetable market. According to Ted Gomatos, Steven's uncle, "we used to supply vegetables for all those final clubs. The Fly, the Fox, you know? Our ties go way back."
Ultimately, it's the personal ties that distinguish this shop from others. No generic have-a-nice-day's here. Catie Zedros, Steven's hyperkinetic mother, paused for a moment to reflect on her family's special relationship with the Harvard student body. "When they come in over and over for a long time, you can't help but get to know them. A lot of them end up calling me `mom,"' she said, laughing. "But that's what's really rewarding. We help them, and they help us. We'll have someone call from the Yard one minute before we're supposed to close, and they say that they'll run over if we'll just stay open a little extra. And of course we always do. Or someone'll forget their change for a rose they want to give their girlfriend, and we'll tell them to bring the money back the next day."
Teddy Gomatos added, "In any business, the people you deal with are the most interesting part. We grew up here, and we've been in business here all our lives. That's how it is. We're a part of Cambridge, and so are you guys, the customers. The people are what make this place tick."