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Beloved Wine Shop Closes Doors

By Jeremy B. Reff, Contributing writer

At its understated storefront on 90 Mt. Auburn St., the Harvard Provision Company (the Pro) has supplied wine and spirits to Harvard undergraduates and Cambridge residents for over 100 years. But on March 14, it will shut its doors forever.

Connoisseurs need not worry, however—the Pro’s owner promises to find a new home for the shop in the Square by summer.

The old wood-framed building, built by Irish immigrants around the turn of the century, also houses Skewers, a Middle-Eastern restaurant.

Harvard is demolishing the building and constructing a new one on the site. The new structure will be primarily devoted to the administration of the Harvard University library system.

It will be the first multi-story administrative building constructed on the stretch on Mt. Auburn St. between Winthrop Park and Harvard Hillel.

Robert Shire, who has owned the Pro for the past year, says the University has been extremely forthcoming about the process since it decided to reclaim the building around four years ago. He also says he is engaged in talks to secure a new lease in the Square for the Pro.

“Every indication is that in the near future we’ll be able to satisfactorily negotiate a new lease for the store,” he says. “We plan to relocate and maintain the business in its current form.”

Still, customers walking around the unusually bare wine racks of the Pro say that they are disappointed by the store’s closing. Employees say they will not be receiving any more shipments of alcohol until the store closes, saying that they will just be selling off their remaining stock.

Sitting on an empty case of Haut-Medoc and discussing politics and wine with store employees, Brian C. Bryan, a regular for the last ten years, says he will miss the community that has developed around the store.

“When you walk in, you can tell, it’s not just a liquor store—it has a certain feel to it,” he says. “I guess I’ll just buy wine at Bread & Circus, but they don’t have the type of knowledge they have here.”

Harvard undergraduates who frequent the Pro say the store’s closing will be a “huge inconvenience,” complaining they will have to go to Central or Porter Squares to procure hard alcohol.

Lisa J. Faiman,’02-’03, says that the location of the Pro is its strongest asset.

“It’s unfair to make final clubs the most convenient place to get alcohol,” she says.

“It’s going to be much harder for Harvard kids to have sex now,” she quips.

And Elizabeth C. Drummond ’04 says she will miss the Pro’s expert advice on selecting fine wines.

Martin J. Connealy, the store’s manager for the past 15 years, says the Pro depended on both students and its repeat customers, who he says came to the store for its consistency. He added that the Pro has only changed ownership four times in the past hundred years.

“We’re a known quantity, we’re responsible…. You know we’re not selling half-pints of vodka to 12-year-olds,” he says.

Connealy also deflects some patrons’ criticism of the University. He says the store’s relationship with its Harvard landlord has been good.

“If anything, the University has been a little better [than other local landlords] to its long-term tenants,” he says.

But some long-term customers of the Pro says they felt otherwise. Rob Chalfen, a Cambridge artist, says that the University is expressing “its typical Harvard heedlessness” towards the store.

“They only reach out when they need it…. There’s no consideration for the integrity of the community,” he says.

The building that the University has proposed to replace the current one at 90 Mt. Auburn St. has been a source of controversy from the time of its inception.

The initial angular design, drawn by noted architect Hans Hollein, winner of the Pritzker Prize in architecture, met with criticism from members of the Harvard Square Defense Fund (HSDF).

They questioned its size and its relationship to the buildings around it.

Ultimately, the design was rejected by the Cambridge Historical Commission (CHC) in April 2001.

The rejection was made, says CHC’s Director Charles Sullivan, because the initial design was “completely divorced from its context.”

“To allow a building of that scale in that area would have been literally a blockbuster,” he says.

Four months after the CHC’s rejection, Harvard decided to turn to a new architect. The new design, drawn by local Boston firm, Leers Weinzapfel Associates, “respects the integrity of the site,” says Sullivan.

Mary H. Power, Harvard’s senior director of community relations, says that the “new design [has] been embraced by the historical commission.” She says that she hopes she will have the HSDF’s active support for the redesigned project.

But G. “Pebble” Gifford, past president of the HSDF, says that while the new building is better, the “bottom line” is that Harvard will have to replace the lost retail space from the Pro with new retail or its equivalent.

“They want to make it into a conservatory for books, but that’s not going to do it,” she says.

Power says that the University is working with the HSDF to provide either retail or a gallery space on the ground floor at 90 Mt. Auburn.

But she says that “to allocate any more space in the ground floor for a public exhibition space will severely impact Harvard libraries’ needs.”

“They’ve already trimmed staff to accommodate for public use. We are not able to provide more space as a favor to the community,” she says.

Power says she expects, despite the current concerns voiced by the HSDF, that construction will move forward.

“The new design is one that has been embraced by the [CHC] and it is viewed as being a building that will contribute to the character of the street.”

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