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Few events in recent memory seemed to sound the death knell of historical Harvard Square as much as the closing of longtime stationery store Bob Slate last March. After nearly eight decades of operation in Cambridge, the store shuttered its doors on Church St., Mass Ave, and Porter Square. Citing “advanced age” and “declining sales,” the storeowners opted to not renew their lease on their multiple properties in the local chain, erasing what had constituted a permanent fixture of Harvard Square for most of the last century. Undoubtedly, the market had shrunk for stationery during this time; with the emergence of global chains like the competitor Staples and the popularity of online vendors like Amazon, Bob Slate’s closure became a poignant reminder that many local businesses may be nearing the end of an era.
We opined that on some level the closing of Bob Slate was an unavoidable eventuality. With Harvard Square’s rapidly changing landscape, a business unable to adapt would inevitably sink. In its then-present form, we felt that Bob Slate could not survive in such an environment.
Now, mere months later, Bob Slate has signaled its intention to return, triumphantly announcing that the store will reopen within weeks with a new location, new management, and, perhaps most importantly, “a forward thinking vision.” We see the return of Bob Slate as a renaissance; its reopening will hopefully serve as an affirmation that Old Harvard Square can adapt and compete with New Harvard Square, preserving the historicity of the former while maintaining the practicality of the latter.
Businesses like Bob Slate are integral elements of Cambridge. For many, the presence of these buildings is the only reminder that Harvard Square did not come into its existence littered with Chipotles, RadioShacks, and Starbucks Coffeehouses. Their age alone is a cultural asset to our community, and regardless of their wares, these stores have intrinsic value. Unfortunately, age will not protect a store from declining profits, and a loyal patronage will inevitably diminish with the passage of time. The economy never stops moving, regardless of how worthy the businesses it tramples underfoot may have been. Consequently, we can only hope that the stores themselves will take the initiative to adapt—Bob Slate has done just that, and it inspires us that the store’s new owner will strive to make the business viable again.
At this point in time, it remains unseen whether or not the new Bob Slate will succeed in the medium or long term, but we certainly hope it does. Despite what some might think, Bob Slate’s closure was the product of neither a single issue nor the actions of a single actor. Globalization, digitization, and generational changes converged to form a perfect storm of inhospitable conditions for the stationery vendor. The new owner will need to address all of these issues if Bob Slate is to prosper beyond the near future. Although current signs by incoming management are encouraging, we do not doubt that there will need to be significant changes to how Bob Slate conducts its business if it intends to be competitive. An increased online presence and economical options for customers are just the tip of the iceberg; Bob Slate will need to make itself relevant in the minds of a generation largely unfamiliar with its products and services. Many of the store’s products may be old-fashioned, but its business model need not be.
The ideal Harvard Square should succeed in both form and function; it should cater to the needs of its surrounding students while paying homage to the culture of Cambridge as a whole. Bob Slate’s rebirth will, with luck, signal the convergence of these aspects, heralding a new generation of a hybrid Harvard Square.
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