Yvonne Abraham

Miracle on Brattle St.

By Yvonne Abraham
Globe Columnist / August 11, 2011

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CAMBRIDGE - Like a lot of people, I’ve been scratching about for something - anything - to feel optimistic about in this week of market misery. On Tuesday, in an empty store on Brattle Street, I found it.

There, perched on a dusty old counter, sat brothers Justin and Mallory Slate, late of Bob Slate, Stationer, the store opened by their father some 80 years ago.

When last we left the Harvard Square and Porter Square stores, they were leaving us. Despite a core clientele religiously devoted to their binders and markers, the brothers - past retirement age and no longer willing to battle big-box stores, the Web, and the wish to see more of their grandchildren - shuttered the Cambridge institutions.

This made a lot of people cry. Bob Slate was the oldest, continuously family-owned business in Harvard Square. It was quirky and fun, a place where the amazing longtime staff remembered every face.

Back in March, Mallory, 73, a funny motorbike enthusiast, mentioned something was in the works that might save his storied business.

That would be nice, I remember thinking. But it didn’t seem likely.

It still doesn’t. But it’s happening anyway.

Laura Donohue had been a Bob Slate devotee since she began shopping there in 1981, her freshman year at Harvard.

“There is not an office supply in my house that doesn’t come from that store,’’ said Donohue, 47, sitting with the Slates on Tuesday. She was stricken when she visited the Church Street branch and learned it was closing.

To console herself, she bought a Cross pen. Then she bought the business.

With a graduate degree in management and a career spent streamlining companies, Donohue wanted to do something different, and she had money to invest. The Slates’ broker was skeptical at first.

“I said, ‘I am the target customer, I know this store, I’ve been shopping here for 30 years,’ ’’ she recalled telling him. She figured devotion like hers was a pretty valuable asset. She convinced the brothers she could make it work by keeping in better touch with other acolytes, taking the store online, offering more personalized products, and embracing technology (hello, iPad accessories).

By the time she and the Slates did a deal, landlords had new tenants for the old spaces. So now a small Bob Slate sign sits in the empty window at 30 Brattle St.

It just so happens that Mallory ran one of the family’s stores in that very location between 1975 and 1990 - the one where Donohue became a fan. And that’s where they all were Tuesday afternoon, talking about how the business will rise again next month.

“There needs to be younger vision,’’ Justin said.

“Vision and vigor!’’ Mallory boomed.

Donohue will keep some of the seasoned workers who made Bob Slate great. And Mallory will stick around for six months to help.

Is this really the time to be relaunching a business, especially one like this?

Donohue has no illusions. She wasn’t banking on the economy taking another slide, but she reckons she can make it work if she’s careful. She is just what the brothers hoped for.

“I think my father would approve,’’ Justin said.

“The light at the end of the tunnel is brilliant,’’ added Mallory. “It just plain feels good.’’

Sitting there with these three hopeful people, you desperately want them to be right. Not just because they’re so lovely, but because of what Bob Slate stands for: quirkiness, personal service, loyalty.

If those things can survive this mess, maybe we can, too.

Yvonne Abraham can be reached at