Sunday, May 26, 2024

The Jules G. Chisholm Visitor Information Booth in Harvard Square. The booth is staffed by volunteers and is intended to be open for about eight hours a day. (Photo: Lawrence E. Miller)

The Jules G. Chisholm Visitor Information Booth in Harvard Square. The booth is staffed by volunteers and is intended to be open for about eight hours a day. (Photo: Lawrence E. Miller)

There’s dispute over whether Cambridge is drawing the yearly 2 million, or even 2.5 million, visitors claimed by city boosters, but it’s a good bet that no matter how many tourist there are, most will find their way to Harvard Square.

Once there, though, can they find their way around? Can they get to the Grolier Poetry Book Shop or Café Pamplona? Can they find the Zero Arrow Theatre or Loeb Drama Center? Can they find the Regattabar or the Brattle Theatre?

There’s an information kiosk that should be able to help — The Jules G. Chisholm Visitor Information Booth, right at the T stop’s main exit by the landmark Out of Town Newsstand, and it’s even run by the city’s office of tourism.

It’s staffed, though, by volunteers.

“Ask it and it will be answered!!! — We hope!” is the cheery message taped to the booth’s main window. As little as that actually means, it means even less when the booth is empty.

As one volunteer explained, the booth is open “usually from 9 to 5. But sometimes people don’t show up.”

If the booth is closed, visitors can come up the tourism office itself.

This is no way to present Harvard Square, one of the top tourist attractions in New England. If an information booth is worth having, it’s worth making sure there are people inside to answer questions. And keeping traditional business hours in an information booth for Harvard Square is like keeping church hours for a bar: It defeats the purpose. This is especially true now, as businesses in the square from Leavitt & Pierce to Au Bon Pain are staying open later, either because the managers feel the need or see an opportunity. It will be even more true as the holidays come closer and shopping hours lengthen.

Either the booth must be staffed more reliably and stay open later, difficult with volunteers, or an alternative or supplement must be found. Perhaps roving squads of knowledgeable local high school or college students wearing T-shirts suggesting visitors test their knowledge of the square? Perhaps with coupons or sales fliers as a lure or reward for asking?

Get the right, outgoing kids, perhaps drama students or other performance types, and they can replace some of the energy sagging from the square with the slipping away of the street performers. They might even be bought off cheap with ice cream, meals and free passes to events. And there would certainly be some pleased to hang around after 5 p.m.

They’d certainly improve the chances a tourist has of finding answers and a friendly face in Harvard Square.

However many tourists there are.