The Changing Face of Harvard Square

As national chains gain visibility, independent stalwarts remain

As a visitor climbs the stairs out of the T station or a Harvard freshman exits the Yard, he or she enters what is called “the heart of Harvard Square.” Two decades ago, the visible area was lined with local, independent stores.

Over the years, the central locations of the Square have become dominated by national chains. In recent months, two national corporations—Pinkberry and Starbucks—opened in one of the oldest buildings in Harvard Square.

Traveling further down Mass. Ave., the street that was once home to several small retail stores has transformed into a line filled with banks and nationally owned chains. An old time business, Bob Slate—a stationary store—closed its doors in March, but the location will soon be filled by a chain panini restaurant, Panera Bread.

Yet hidden between the nationally-recognized names reside independent businesses that hold on to what was once the foundation of Harvard Square. These small shops stay true to their niches to provide unique services to the community while trying to survive in a world of economic shifts and changing trends.



Even before the establishment of Harvard University, the Square existed as an area of local businesses to serve the needs of 17th century community members. Since then, Harvard Square has developed as one of the most popular destinations in Massachusetts.

The Harvard Square Business Association, which has served the community for over 100 years, has tracked data on Square business for the past decade.

HSBA Executive Director Denise A. Jillson says that over that time, there has been a shift from retail to more restaurants and eateries in the Square. According to the HSBA, there are 128 retail establishments and 95 restaurants.

The number of locally-owned independent businesses has fluctuated between 72 to 80 percent and is currently 78.1 percent, according to Jillson.

“One of the causes for the perception [of more nationals] is they are typically located in the most visible real estate,” Jillson says. “They can pay higher rents. It’s not a growing trend here. It’s been a reality for a long time.”

The high cost of rent has also forced many residents of the Square to move, says Paul J. Macdonald, the owner of Leavitt & Peirce—a tobacconist that has been in the Square for 178 years. This shift has changed the face of the Square.

“The community has definitely changed. It’s less of a neighborhood,” says Bill E. Bartley, the general manager of Mr. Bartley’s Burger Cottage.

Bartley, whose father Joseph Bartley founded the restaurant in 1961, recalls growing up on Mass. Ave. and learning from the many local business owners on the street.

The business world has seen a change in the past decade due to the emergence of the Internet and online shopping, according to Richard J. Diamond, the owner of Diamond Group—a commercial brokerage and advisory company. These factors can force both independent and national businesses to fail. Abercrombie & Fitch—a national men and women’s apparel store—was located at 6 JFK St, but it closed in 2004 to be replaced by Citizens Bank.

“What happens is some big chains come in and realize they can’t do business here. They close and the small mom and pops continue to flourish,” Diamond says.