Yvonne Abraham

The last page at Bob Slate

By Yvonne Abraham
Globe Columnist / March 27, 2011

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CAMBRIDGE — “Just don’t ask me how I feel.’’

Mallory Slate leaned against the counter at his store on Church Street last week, contemplating the end of things, but willing to go only so far.

Around him, longtime employees filled boxes with calendars, ledger books, and markers.

Bob Slate, the stationery business his father started almost 80 years ago, is closing. The Church Street store made its final sale last Sunday. Mass. Ave. follows today. Soon, the last of the three stores, in Porter Square, will be shuttered too.

This is big news. Bob Slate is the oldest continuously-owned family business in Harvard Square. Beloved by Julia Child and B.F. Skinner and an army of luminaries, Bob Slate was also a place where ordinary people stopped by to chat, or to test pens on lunch breaks.

“People came to Bob Slate the way a different population would go to a saloon, for conversation and good vibes,’’ Mallory said.

Of course, waves of generic blah-ness have been crashing over Harvard Square for years, dragging away local institutions, wearing away quirkiness, leaving safe edges on almost all that remains.

Add the rise of Staples and the fall of paper to the mix, and the amazing thing is that Bob Slate held on so long.

Mallory, who runs the business with his brother Justin, is 73, with a long gray beard and a playful gruffness. He began working in the store in 1950, when he was 12, but he wasn’t going to end up here. He did a couple of stints in the Army, and a few years making documentary films in New York and San Francisco in the early ’70s.

But he had two kids to support, and so, in 1973, he came home. Under Justin and Bob, business boomed. They opened two more stores.

Then Staples opened in Brighton in the mid-’80s, and within a couple of years, the Slates could barely budge their inventory. So they reinvented themselves, stocking social stationery and specialized supplies with which big chains won’t bother.

“In the old days, I used to say, ‘This is a nuts-and-bolts store, we ain’t no boutique,’ ’’ Mallory said. “Now, we’re a boutique.’’

They had record years till 2001. Then online happened.

“People spend an hour looking at every fountain pen we have, then they go home and buy it on the Internet,’’ Mallory said.

Also bad for business: The fact that people don’t write many letters any more.

Then there is the crazy way the Slates give their workers decent pay and benefits. Becky Haydock and Carolyn Roosevelt started working here right out of college three decades ago. They know every piece of merchandise, and all of Mallory’s stories by heart.

“It’s a great place to work,’’ Roosevelt says. “When people come in here, they need something simple. They don’t need a kidney or a divorce. They just need a paper clip. And I have it.’’

The happiness of Bob Slate workers may be the most archaic thing about this old-fashioned business. When it closes, we lose more than a local institution: We lose yet another company its employees love. And that leaves the whole world colder.

Mallory Slate reckons there’s still a way to make the stores work, but he and his brother are “two geezers, and to reinvent this place again you’d need a 40-year-old mind.’’ His mind is on his grandchildren, his two motorbikes, and his place on a lake in New Hampshire.

And on his workers. Ask about them, and he will finally tell you how he feels.

“How would you feel if you were closing down an 80-year-old business with staff like Becky, who have been here for 32 years and don’t yet qualify for Social Security?’’ he says. “Woefully inadequate.’’

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at