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Taking Care of Square Business

While cell phone stores sprouted, mom-and-pops folded—and even chains found they coudn't sell

The Spring Store, which replaced Sage's grocery, is part of a wave of cell phone stores that swarmed teh Square in the last four years.
The Spring Store, which replaced Sage's grocery, is part of a wave of cell phone stores that swarmed teh Square in the last four years.
By Imtiyaz H. Delawala and Andrew S. Holbrook, Crimson Staff Writerss

The bookcase is bare, except for a thin volume called An Introduction to Logic, as Andrew A. Jantz leans his arm on one of the empty shelves.

“I’m disappointed,” says the manager of A Scholar’s Bookshop. “We opened it with high hopes....But we didn’t sell nearly enough books. We were losing money from day one and just couldn’t carry it anymore.”

Less than a year after it opened, the bookstore has become the latest in more than two dozen stores that have closed during the four years that the Class of 2003 spent in Harvard Square.

While movers hoist box after box of used books up the stairs and out of the store’s basement location across the street from the Charles Hotel, Jantz reminisces about a golden age of independent booksellers in the Square.

“There used to be a day when you could visit Harvard Square and you could pick up a map that showed 20 bookstores,” he says. “You could come here...and go from bookstore to bookstore.”

Even with high rents in the Square, the proprietors figured that the area’s thousands of professors and students would support their store, which specialized in out-of-print academic titles. The classics sold well, as did philosophy texts, but overall sales figures were only a third to a half of what was needed to break even.

A Scholar’s Bookshop is just one of many tenants of Harvard Square that have succumbed to financial pressures in the last four years.

Sage’s grocery store, formerly located at the corner Brattle and Church Streets, shut down during the spring of the class’ first year in Cambridge. Billings & Stover Apothecary, an old-fashioned Brattle Street soda fountain and pharmacy, closed its doors during the class’ junior year. And the Harvard Provision Company, the only liquor store in the Square, left its Mt. Auburn Street location in March.

Those three stores combined had been in Harvard Square for more than three centuries.

The Class of 2003 watched Good Will Hunting in high school, in which Matt Damon, Class of 1992, frequented Harvard Square’s Tasty restaurant and the Bow and Arrow Pub, while one-upping a romantic rival at a Dunkin’ Donuts and Baskin-Robbins shop.

As the class leaves, none of the three Square locations survives.

But in addition to the closings, the Class of 2003 has witnessed the expansion of a number of Square mainstays and the advent of cell phone stores such as Cingular, Sprint PCS and T-Mobile.

Several businesses with prime Mass. Ave. storefronts such as C’est Bon and CVS have expanded their locations, along with Bob Slate, Cambridgeport Bank and Fleet Bank.

But despite all the changes, the Square continues to have a distinctive mix.

“We’ve got new chains. We’ve got mom-and-pops,” says John DiGiovanni, president of the Harvard Square Business Association. “Let’s see how they do.”

Chain Reaction

Locals have complained for years that oppressive landlords and skyrocketing rents have gentrified a once distinctive mix of independently owned mom-and-pops and larger retail stores and restaurants.

But the four years that the Class of 2003 spent in the Square—years beginning with prosperity and ending in recession—also saw a wave of national chains closing.

Turnover has always been part of the business cycle for small businesses, with owners burning out and leaving without anyone to take their place. But in recent years, and in bad economic times, turnover has become part of the cycle for the Square’s chains as well, with corporate headquarters pulling stores out of the area when even their well-recognized names couldn’t sell in the Square.

The surfer clothing outlet Pacific Sunwear, an Adidas shoe and clothing store on Mass. Ave., the trendy Express and Structure women and men’s outfitters and music megastore HMV all are national chains whose Harvard Square locations have closed their doors in the past four years.

In the case of HMV, many argue its departure last month signals a major loss locally, taking away from Harvard Square a major seller of classical CDs.

“Even though HMV was a chain, it was a chain that filled a real need in the Square,” says Jinny Nathans, president of the Harvard Square Defense Fund, a volunteer group that works to preserve the area’s traditional variety.

She says many national outfits come to Harvard Square to take advantage of the shopping attraction that has built up over the years, figuring that they have a “slam-dunk captive audience.”

But when they fail to turn a profit, the closure of national chains leaves longer lag times than the turnover of small businesses.

“They decide it’s cheaper to close the store and pay the rent on an empty space than run a losing operation,” Nathans says. “They’ll just run out the lease and they give no thought that there may be for three or four years dead space on that street.”

Closing Shop

After 16 years in retail, Irma B. King Licorish has decided to get out.

One day last week, her green and purple dress billows as the owner of Caribbean-African Creations circulates among the tapestries and trinkets in her JFK Street store. Customers come in off the street and offer condolences on the “going out of business” signs on the door.

“I’m sorry to hear this,” says Regina Ellerbee, a T bus driver who heard the news from a passenger this morning.

Over the years Ellerbee has accumulated garbs, hats and jewelry from the store, which sells traditional African masks for several hundred dollars, as well as baskets of inexpensive wooden carvings, trays of earrings and racks of colorful dresses.

Another customer this morning, Liora R. Halperin ’05, walks with a handful of hangers into the bathroom, which doubles as the fitting room. The dresses are too big, but she starts talking with King Licorish about which colors she prefers.

When Halperin hears that King Licorish used to live in her hometown of Lexington, she realizes that she knows of the owner’s daughter—who was a track star at the high school.

“A place like this you can chat with the owner,” she says. “You don’t chat with the people at the Gap.”

Locals often decry the closing of small, locally-run stores like Caribbean-African Creations as a sign of the decline of Harvard Square. For example, Video Pro, which used to be located in the Garage, closed in spring 2001 due to the pressures of high rents—leaving Harvard students with no Square location to rent videos and DVD’s.

But King Licorish shows that the blame does not always fall on the pressures of high rent and gentrification.

Booted by Harvard after three years in the Holyoke Center arcade, King Licorish has occupied for the last six years a building owned by MIT—which has been a more accommodating landlord, she says, even when she got $17,000 behind in rent this spring.

The former accounting manager, who moved to the U.S. from Guyana in 1967, says the store represents her “final career in the human scene.” After closing the store at the end of the month, she plans to become a full-time Christian Science healer.

King Licorish arrived at her decision on April 1, still facing the backlog in rent and coping with the recession. She knew immediately that it was the right decision because the very next day she saw an upturn in sales that began quickly to make up the deficit.

“The heavens opened,” she says. “It cleared the rent in a week. I prayed a lot for it. That was God’s way of taking me out of this business.”

She had to get out, King Licorish says, because national chains can weather economic slowdowns and offer discounts that small operations like hers cannot sustain.

She complains of the “big conglomerates” that have taken over the Square in recent years. But nevertheless these chains have established themselves as well-known businesses in the area.

A few minutes later, answering a telephone call, this small business owner gives directions by referring to the solid red windows of the store across the street which had moved in three years ago.

“I’m opposite Staples,” she says.

Finding a Niche

While Harvard Square has changed in the last four years, many say that the evolution is natural, especially in a lagging economy and difficult real estate market.

“I think it’s clear that the Square will continue to change,” says DiGiovanni, who is also president of Trinity Properties, which owns many buildings in the Square. “It’s a gradual change, the majority of which is motivated by the marketplace.”

Even the staunchest critics of recent changes say that, in order to maintain its place as the second leading tourist attraction in Boston behind Faneuil Hall Marketplace, the Square must sometimes sacrifice its other qualities as a cultural and recreational destination.

“Decisions about the businesses that are in the Square are made in economic terms, not in terms of the touchy-feeliness of character and uniqueness,” Nathans says.

Jeremiah P. Murphy ’73, president of the Harvard Coop—another major Square landlord which owns the building that now houses the Grafton Street bar—says there’s no secret to success that’s limited to a certain set of businesses.

“Obviously a business should offer a product or service that customers want, so they are willing to support you and your store,” Murphy says. “If you don’t keep up with what customers want, then you won’t be successful.”

Three months after it welcomed its first customers, a red sign in the window of its Mt. Auburn Street building still advertises the “grand opening” of Unique Nails—a boutique looking to fit into the sort of niche that Murphy describes.

Business has been “slow” at Unique, the second location of a store that originated in Newton, according to manager Kelly Nguyen, who stands in the doorway as her two stylists sit on plastic chairs outside.

Most customers are walk-ins, mainly students who are looking for a low-priced manicure, but sometimes even tourists stopping to get their nails touched up. Word of mouth has helped, Nguyen says, as students learn of the Square’s first discount shop specializing in nails.

“Before they had to go far,” she says. “And we are not expensive, which is good for them.”

Keeping the Character

Leaning against the garage door that leads to the alley behind Dickson Brothers hardware, store manager Edward Santamaria says his store does what it can to encourage small businesses in the area.

Many mom-and-pop stores start accounts with Dickson Brothers, and in return the Square’s only hardware store offers special discounts, in addition to its usual free delivery.

Santamaria, who has worked at Dickson Brothers for 32 years, says he believes the comings and goings of Square shops in the last few years have been “good and bad.”

The arrival of national chains, whose purchasing decisions come from headquarters far from the Square, makes it harder to keep up sales to local businesses.

“Everything’s handled by corporate,” he says. “They won’t buy from you.”

But a number of new small businesses have arrived recently, too, including the Redhouse Restaurant near the House of Blues and Crazy Dough Pizza in the Garage—and as they opened their doors, they opened accounts with Dickson Brothers.

Upstairs at the Pudding had been a major client until Harvard ousted it from the third floor of the Hasty Pudding building. Last fall, the upscale restaurant reopened as Upstairs on the Square near the intersection of Winthrop and JFK Streets.

“We’re happy for them,” Santamaria says. “They are a very good customer of ours.”

The continued ability of Dickson Brothers to find locally owned businesses as clients points to a continued place for a variety of businesses in the Square.

“Even though people feel that the Square has lost much of its individualistic feeling there still is a lot there,” Nathans says. “You just have to look a little harder for it.”

And DiGiovanni says that landlords do give consideration to what kind of businesses are best for the Square. He says that his agency gave Real Taco the space formerly occupied by Breugger’s Bagels in the Garage last year, instead of cell phone vendor Nextel, which offered a higher bid for the location.

He says Real Taco got an edge because it provided another affordable, late-night dining venue for students, many of which had disappeared in recent years.

“It’s the property owner’s decision,” DiGiovanni says.

Charles M. Sullivan, director of the Cambridge Historical Commission, adds that the city of Cambridge has also sought to preserve the physical character of the Square, which was made into a conservation district in December 2000. All new construction and major alterations must be approved by the commission.

“We’re not trying to prevent change,” Sullivan says. “We’re trying to make sure that change isn’t destructive to the character of the Square.”

And Robin Lapidus, executive director of the Harvard Square Business Association, says that while changes do happen, they help contribute to the Square’s constantly evolving character.

“There’s this mythological character to Harvard Square that it’s not supposed to change,” Lapidus says. “But the world continues to change, and Harvard Square is part of the world.”

—Staff writer Imtiyaz H. Delawala can be reached at

—Staff writer Andrew S. Holbrook can be reached at

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