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Slated for Change

Harvard Square should not sidestep history

By The Crimson Staff

The oldest stationery store in Harvard Square will close its doors next month after 78 years of service to the Harvard community.

Bob Slate’s closing is unavoidably sad as, once again, we watch the Harvard Square of yore lose the game of musical chairs where the music stops when the rent is too high. But as much as this cycle is often unfortunate, it is also inevitable. And we feel that, in the long run, it might even be beneficial, even when institutions as deeply rooted as Bob Slate are forced to close. Looking beyond our nostalgia for a beloved local fixture, we have to remember the nature of this particular establishment—a relatively expensive curiosity shop whose high prices could not compete with student demand for cheap goods.

In our view, the closing of Bob Slate is a sign of a Harvard Square that is more functional for students and better tailored to their needs, not to those of tourists or of past generations that knew a Harvard none of us will ever know. If, as we believe it must, Harvard Square is to serve as a college town, current undergraduate demand should determine which establishments survive and which do not in the expensive storefronts of Massachusetts Avenue.

To be sure, we do not by any means intend to celebrate the disappearance of the sort of local specialty store that gives Harvard Square its unique character. Harvard Square has always been a haven for the creative and the intellectual, and so it should remain. But, in our view, Bob Slate was a special case: not only was it unaffordable for many students, its hallmark item—stationery—suffers as an industry as much as the business itself. In this day and age, it seems safe to say that very few students even use stationery anymore, and other school supplies can be found elsewhere for cheaper. As much as we regret to see 78 years of a family business fade away, Bob Slate is a relic of the past more attuned to the needs of past generations of Harvard students.

In this sense, the demise of Bob Slate does not symbolize the death of the local store in Harvard Square. Rather, it seems to indicate that certain business niches are—in an age of subsidized chain stores—replaceable, and the ones that can compete are becoming smaller and more specialized. As much as Bob Slate ultimately could not compete with a bargain store like Staples, we cannot imagine any equivalent that might undercut certain Harvard Square staples such as Grolier Poetry Shop or Leavitt & Peirce Tobacco. These institutions combine their unique charm with irreplaceable goods and services that are relevant to students of any generation. As much as we regret it, stationery no longer seems among these goods.

Gone but not forgotten, Bob Slate has inscribed itself in our memories as a reminder of the beauty of the written word. Its closing should warn us yet again that we cannot let our appreciation for the epistolary arts die completely in the age of Gmail. But we should consider its passing not as a dead-end but as an inevitable step toward a newer Harvard Square that caters more to the needs of the current student body rather than to the select few who regularly purchased the beautiful handiwork of a plagued industry.

Despite the healthfulness of change, we nevertheless believe that the new direction of Harvard Square should still reflect the aesthetic and intellectual idiosyncrasies that have given the Square its character for past generations. Harvard may be an institution that coevolves internally with modernity, but we cannot toss antiquity to the wind when our institution is older than the country that houses us.

If the modus operandi is indeed “out with the old and in with the new,” we believe that the new tenants of Bob Slate’s storefronts should respect the local aesthetic when making any changes in an effort to maintain the Square’s uniqueness.

They, as much as we, owe it to Bob Slate to do so.

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