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Despite store closings, square keeps dealing

By Victoria Leenders-Cheng
Globe Correspondent / March 8, 2009
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The state of the economy is given visual punch in and around Harvard Square, where prominent storefronts stand empty amid the bustle of tourists and hurrying students.

The gutted Bowl & Board store lies sprawled at the easternmost edge of the square, while the Crate & Barrel's former location on Brattle Street towers in vacant majesty. The windows are papered over at Cross and adorned with "To Lease" signs where Z Square once stood, just around the corner from each other at JFK and Brattle streets. The Alpha Omega store at the heart of the square, too, remains unoccupied.

Appearances, however, can be deceiving, said Denise Jillson, executive director of the Harvard Square Business Association, who added that for stores in the area, it is business as usual. Indeed, for many, business is better than ever.

"I can't comment on the sentiments of people walking through the square, but we had a restaurant committee meeting last Tuesday and they said that this past Saturday was their best night in years," she said. "I don't mean to be looking at the world through rose-colored glasses, but we're OK."

Jillson said Harvard Square continues to be busy perhaps because "people don't have the money to go to Vermont or Europe or Disney, but they still need to experience something fun, outdoorsy, and quirky."

Some observers say that such store closings were inevitable in the district's cut-throat and highly priced retail environment.

Mark Giarrusso, owner of the Bowl & Board, said, "Harvard Square got a little too upscale."

"Leases went up and price points went up," he said, and a slowdown in retail sales was the final ingredient creating a financially untenable situation for many business owners.

Giarrusso characterized the vacancies in Harvard Square as a market correction.

While apologizing for prophesying doom, he said, "You have to have disaster and failure first, and the property and business owners regroup, rents come down, and people take risks and bring back the funky stores that keep the area fun and hip."

Almost in concert with the timeline of the economic downturn, a series of storefronts in Harvard Square, including Bowl & Board, have broadcast that now-familiar mixed message of shopping bargains and struggling retail over the past year.

Alpha Omega's apocalypse-style sale placards floated around the T station in early 2008, "store closing" signs at the Bowl & Board surfaced later in the year, and 75 percent off banners hung in Cross in January.

"We're living in a tough time, and a lot of businesses can't afford the rent," said Sheldon Cohen, who ran Out of Town News until 1994.

Cohen also publishes an annual map of the city that is dependent on advertisers, many of whom are located in Harvard Square, and he has watched the area's businesses come and go.

Still, Cohen noted that some advertisers declined to buy space on the map this year because of the economic downturn. "Some people use [the downturn] as leverage not to be bothered with you," he said.

Debate about high rents - always a sore topic - and the presence of national chain stores in the square resurfaced when Crate & Barrel closed its well-known Brattle Street glass doors in January.

Jillson pointed out that more than 80 percent of the businesses in Harvard Square are either locally owned independents or regional chain stores. She said two recent closings, Z Square and Life is Good, are regional chains.

"Z Square went out of business, and people loved that restaurant, but if you ask people who know this stuff, it was just poor planning," she said. "And the Life is Good concept in that location never really worked. Sometimes you get a location that's inappropriate for the kind of business it is."

Whatever the relationship between the nation's economy and fortunes of businesses in the square, Jillson and Cohen, both veterans of the industry, emphasized the importance of remaining optimistic.

"I keep going," said Cohen. "I look for new people and new ideas - you have to give in order to succeed."

"People continue to need things and they need to eat," Jillson said, adding that new additions to Harvard Square, such as Crema Café and Passport Boutique, a travel goods store, have so far been successful.

Noting that both of those enterprises are run by young women, she added, "The Harvard Square Business Association used to be the Harvard Square Businessmen's Association," emphasizing the word "men."

"But it's women who are really running the square now. They're merchandising their product and making it."

A lesson, perhaps, for the folks still trying to steer the country out of that deepening recession.

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