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Outpost falls in Cambridge

Roach’s Sporting Goods (and gun shop) to close after 108 years

By Brock Parker
Globe Correspondent / May 4, 2012
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CAMBRIDGE - In the famously liberal city of Cambridge, there has been but one place for the past several years to legally buy a gun or a rifle, while also picking through wading boots or canoes, all under the gaze of a giant moose head peering down from the wall.

But now change has come to Porter Square, and Roach’s Sporting Goods is about to close its doors after 108 years in business.

The family-owned shop at 1957 Massachusetts Ave. is the last store to sell firearms in Cambridge. Contrary to the image of Cambridge as a bastion of gun-hating liberals, repeat customers from the city and the surrounding area enabled the store to survive for generations.

“They’ve always loved that here in the middle of the city is a real outdoors store,’’ Joe Callanan said.

It is just the latest independently owned store in Cambridge to close in recent years. The list also includes the Globe Corner Bookstore in Harvard Square and Bob Slate Stationer shops in Harvard Square and in Porter Square, just a few doors down from Roach’s Sporting Goods.

Callanan, who along with his brother Chuck is the third generation of his family to run Roach’s, said the store cannot afford to renew its lease, and it will close this month.

Callanan posted closing signs in the store window a few weeks ago, and customers have been streaming in to make final purchases and say goodbye.

“When they see the sign, I’ve had people tell me they are almost having car accidents because they can’t believe it,’’ said Joe Callanan. “Really, this has become like a two-month-long wake.’’

Roach’s Sporting Goods opened on Upland Road in Cambridge in 1904 under the name Roach’s Hardware. The store, owned originally by the Roach family, has been in three different locations in Porter Square, and in the 1930s, the Roach family bequeathed the business to the Callanans, said Joe Callanan.

He said his grandmother, Theresa Callanan, worked as a cook for the Roach family before she began working at the hardware store during the Great Depression. When the owner died, he left the business to her, and her husband, Joe Callanan, ran the business before passing it along to his sons, the late Charles and Bill Callanan.

In the 1960s, Charles and Bill Callanan moved the store to its current location from its old spot on Massachusetts Avenue across the street from the former Sears, Roebuck building. They changed the name of the business to Roach’s Sporting Goods and did away with the hardware trade to focus more on hunting and fishing supplies. The business was then handed down to Charles Callanan’s sons, Chuck and Joe.

Roach’s still uses a 1916 brass and bronze cash register that Joe Callanan said he supplements with an adding machine. On the wall at the entrance is a bulletin board where customers post photographs of themselves with fish they have caught, and Callanan has the 2005 obituary of his father Charles taped to the side of a gun rack in the back of the store. In the picture accompanying the obituary is a photo of Charles Callanan holding two fish.

The store sells all manner of sporting goods and displays stuffed big game, including the giant moose head, which Callanan said was the eighth largest shot in British Columbia in the 1970s. Stashed elsewhere are a steel bear trap and an 1865 target shooting rifle.

Callanan is trying to sell off almost everything, but he plans to keep a couple of items, including a sign with the store’s name and a poster of a man in a canoe wearing a cowboy hat and holding a rifle. Callanan said he wants the picture because it represents the essence of the outdoor experience that his store has been all about.

Over the years, Roach’s has had its share of people raising objections to its sale of firearms. Once an 80-year-old woman who purchased winter clothing at the store whispered in his ear that she wished he would stop selling weapons.

John Howard, president of the Porter Square Neighborhood Association, said he has not always been comfortable with Roach’s selling guns and ammunition, but the store sells other sporting goods, too, and he has shopped there.

“I’m very sorry to see it shut down,’’ Howard said, bemoaning its closure among the other losses of veteran retailers.

A longtime customer, Dr. Taylor Thompson, found Roach’s Sporting Goods in 1978 when he moved from California to Massachusetts to practice medicine.

“When I walked into that store I felt like I was home,’’ said Thompson, who lives in Jamaica Plain and practices at Massachusetts General Hospital. “Roach’s is an authentic sporting goods store.’’

Thompson, who is also a professor at Harvard Medical School, said he has purchased everything from tents to hunting equipment there.

“It’s unfortunate to see another one of these local treasures close,’’ Thompson said.

Callanan said that what really sustained his business over the years is the relationships he has built with customers, including some who are 60 or 70 years old and tell him they bought their first gun from his dad.

Once the store closes, he said, he may focus more on his passion for wildlife photography, but he does not know what he will do.

“One of the great things to happen in this business is you might be selling a guy some products, but he’s telling you about his last adventure, and that makes it such a joy to come to work,’’ Callanan said. “This is like a major life change. It’s sad.’’

Brock Parker can be reached at

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