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As Pandemic Pressures Mount, Businesses Bid Harvard Square Goodbye

Harvard Square during the summer.
Harvard Square during the summer. By Derek G. Xiao
By Simon J. Levien and Charles Xu, Crimson Staff Writers

After more than three months since the initial outbreak of the novel coronavirus in Cambridge, many local businesses have struggled to stay open, with a few even closing their doors permanently.

In Harvard Square, 62-year-old family-owned eatery Café Pamplona announced it would close its doors, citing a steep drop in customers in the spring. Even chain businesses, like Wellbridge Athletic Club near Harvard Kennedy School and Legal Sea Foods in Charles Square have decided to let their leases expire in recent weeks.

Theodora M. “Theo” Skeadas ’12 who directs the Cambridge Local First network of Cambridge businesses, said that of the roughly 200 businesses she is in contact with, 50 to 100 are on the verge of closing. She wrote that she is aware of at least 10 local restaurants outside Harvard Square that have already shuttered.

“They’re very sad and stressed and anxious,” Skeadas said of business owners. “The word desperation comes up a lot.”

Former owner of Café Pamplona Nina S. Hovagimian said she and her husband were living “paycheck to paycheck.” After her second month behind on her mortgage and serving very few customers per day, she closed her shop in mid May. Hovagimian said she was filing for bankruptcy.

“The café was me. I did everything,” she said. “It’s just like a part of me, like having a baby. It’s a big loss because I put everything I had into it.”

Pamplona — like many other Harvard Square businesses — relies on student patronage, which has been absent since Harvard students were sent home in mid-March.

“I don’t know how you survive without the students. Harvard Square is Harvard,” she said.

Hovagimian said operating under social distancing restrictions would have been difficult for the café, which occupies a small section of a basement.

Café Pamplona has previously been grandfathered by the city, according to Hovagimian. She said she doesn’t know how a new business in its place might bring the location up to code. Regardless, Hovagimian said she is hopeful the shop can remain under a new owner.

In Charles Square, Legal Sea Foods, a restaurant chain founded in Cambridge in 1950, will also shut its doors — at least temporarily. Vice President of Marketing Ida Faber wrote in an emailed statement the restaurant had tried to find a “more prominent” location since its original 15-year lease ended in 2018 but was unable to do so.

She noted that with the lease expiring at the end of June and the continued effects of the pandemic, it did not make sense to reopen for a “short window of time.”

“Given the fluidity of the extended stay-at-home orders and subsequent reopening restrictions as well as other factors like the cancellation of Harvard’s commencement, we felt it didn’t make sense to re-open for such a short window of time,” Faber wrote.

Another chain, Wellbridge Athletic Club, announced it would also close its Cambridge location after 20 years. The club — which operated across from the Kennedy School — wrote on its website it would not reopen because rent negotiations fell through.

“While Wellbridge management was hopeful for a positive outcome of our recent lease negotiations we were unable to achieve an agreement to move forward in re-opening the club,” the website read. “Not only is this a sad change for Wellbridge, it comes at an even more challenging time for the world.

Dickson Bros. — a fixture in Harvard Square for almost 80 years — will also close. Owner Ned Ver Planck said he plans to retire from the hardware store.

For businesses that are still in operation, owners are working overtime to weather the effects of COVID-19 and stay somewhat profitable.

At Grendel’s Den in Harvard Square, owner Kari Kuelzer said she has not had a day off since late March. Kuelzer explained that for small, family-run restaurants, owners personally shoulder the burdens of the business to “come out of the ashes” of the pandemic.

“A lot of that depends on whether or not you have an energetic person who's willing to put all the blood, sweat, and tears into rebuilding a business after such a devastating blow,” she said. “I can testify to it because I have not had a day off and when I say a day, I mean I work 15 to 20 hours a day.”

Despite the long hours, Kuelzer said she has been able to navigate the challenges of COVID-19 because she has an “emotional connection” to her business.

“I have an incredibly wonderful, close-knit community of staff who are like family members to me,” she said. “Our business is not just about food, and drinks and calories and alcohol. Our business is about people and about society.”

“And so we have that — society thrives inside of our walls,” she said.

—Staff writer Simon J. Levien can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @simonjlevien.

—Staff writer Charles Xu can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @charles_xu_27.

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