The saddest adventure of Curious George shop

The shelves of Curious George & Friends in Harvard Square in Cambridge are emptying quickly as the store prepares to close, probably within the next month. The shelves of Curious George & Friends in Harvard Square in Cambridge are emptying quickly as the store prepares to close, probably within the next month. (Kayana Szymczak for The Boston Globe)
By Joseph P. Kahn
Globe Staff / June 7, 2011

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CAMBRIDGE — Curious George has survived bike accidents, balloon rides, space travel, and surgery to remove a swallowed piece of a jigsaw puzzle. But the Harvard Square store that bears the mischievous monkey’s name may soon fall victim to more prosaic challenges: rent increases, soaring health care costs, a shaky economy, and, most painful of all, the disappearing independent bookseller in the age of Amazon and Kindle.

The owners of Curious George & Friends have notified employees and customers that the store will close, probably within the next month.

Founded in 1995 by Hillel Stavis and Donna Friedman, it has not only been a distinctive addition to the square’s retail landscape, but a rich educational resource as well. Besides books, games, clothing, and crafts, the store has offered author readings, art classes, and other school outreach programs. Sitting in the heart of Harvard Square, it is as easy to spot as The Man in the Yellow Hat.

“Somebody may still step up and save us, but I’m not too hopeful,’’ Stavis said yesterday.

A month ago, Stavis and Friedman converted their store to nonprofit status and asked the Cambridge City Council for a $200,000 donation to help stay afloat. The request was turned down, as was an appeal to the Curious George Foundation, established by the estate of H.A. “Hans’’ and Margret Rey, George’s creators.

Meanwhile, the store failed to negotiate a long-term lease with the building’s owners, and construction work in the immediate vicinity has further hampered operations, Staavis said.

To many, the store’s disappearance represents yet another chapter in Harvard Square’s transformation from unique retail environment to crimson-tinged minimall. A cultural mecca that once supported more than 20 bookstores may soon be down to its last indie outpost, the Harvard Book Store.

Sonya Sheats, a Cambridge bookbinder who was shopping for discounted merchandise yesterday, said she would be sorry to see the store go.

“So many places closing around here are being replaced by not-so-interesting corporations,’’ said Sheats, who has been coming here with her son, now 3, practically since he was born.

Kathryn Jacob, a Harvard University curator, has been patronizing the store for a dozen years, buying birthday and holiday gifts.

“I’m sorry to see that independent bookstores like this can’t make it, but I understand the pressures,’’ Jacob said. “I like being able to see books before I buy them. The staff here is always helpful, too. Amazon doesn’t do that.’’

Stavis and Friedman have been through a similar scenario before. In 2004, they shuttered WordsWorth, a popular draw for local bibliophiles, after the store filed for bankruptcy.

Curious George & Friends is in better shape, according to Stavis. However, paying upwards of $15,000 in monthly rent for a mere 1,000 square feet of space no longer makes financial sense, he said. That and rising health insurance costs for the store’s six full-time employees made staying open almost impossible.

“It’s still hard,’’ Stavis said, citing his personal connection to the Reys and the store’s origins.

Margret and Hans Rey moved to Cambridge in 1963. Refugees from Nazi Germany, they published the first of their seven Curious George books in 1941. The series grew to encompass more books (drawn and written by others) along with film and television adaptations, the books alone having sold more than 30 million copies and been translated into 16 languages.

Hans died in 1977; Margret lived until 1996. Stavis and Friedman knew the couple as neighbors, and Margaret gave her support to their plans for a Curious George emporium.

“She loved the idea and even inaugurated the store,’’ Stavis recalled yesterday. “She was wonderfully generous, even though it belied what you might call her formidable demeanor.’’

The Reys had no children of their own. But the little monkey they unleashed upon the world, sometimes literally, went on to captivate generation after generation. So much so, said Stavis, that his store’s Curious George merchandise often gets bought by college students reliving their bedtime-story years.

“We’ve made a lot of kids happy over the years,’’ he said, “and that’s what I’ll miss the most.’’

Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at

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