Wednesday, July 24, 2024

Cambridge’s Inman Square thrives by keeping out retail chains. (Photo: Nietnagel)

Cambridge Day is part of a project called Voices of MainStreet — a weekly, nationwide Q&A in which editors at the money and lifestyle site ask questions and bloggers answer them. This is the first entry, in which I answer how the Great Recession has affected me and Cambridge as a whole. A summary of my answer: Hard to tell.

I don’t do Black Friday. Part of this is because my family and I work on a different schedule that combines Thanksgiving, Giftmas and at least two birthdays, so my buying for the family should be done before Black Friday dawns. And, since my friends and I long ago agreed we would buy only birthday gifts for each other and not contribute to the finance or time pressures of the holidays, that’s pretty much that. I get to relax while others build and rally their mall teams and sleep during their assault.

That also makes Cyber Monday pointless, and even Small Business Saturday. It’s true I could use the days’ bargains for myself, but I usually only buy things as needed. And it’s true I could buy for next year’s holidays, but, well, that doesn’t really work for me. The presents I buy are usually personal and current. I’m not buying a fruitcake for Uncle Leon every year, and I don’t want to wait a year to give my niece the fifth Wimpy Kid book.

It’s probably not a rare attitude in Cambridge, where the Cambridge Local First alliance of locally owned businesses has more than 250 members, the presence of Abercrombie & Fitch in Harvard Square was considered a stain (it eventually went out of business) and Inman Square thrives in part by ensuring the national chain stores don’t get a foothold. (A block or two away you can gas up at Hess, buy a Slurpee at 7-Eleven and indulge in guilty pleasures at a Taco Bell/KFC, but the toy store is Stellabella – which offers a 20% off coupon for Black Friday this year — not Toys R Us; there’s a 1369 Coffeehouse, not a Starbucks; and the sandwiches come from All Star Sandwich Bar, not Panera Bread.)

Cambridge does have a mall, though – CambridgeSide – and I know from a past expedition it gets downright claustrophobic on Black Friday, with retailers such as Sears and KB Toys choking aisles with gift card giveaways and doorbuster sales just like every other indoor shopping mecca in the country.

The independent stores don’t try to compete. Black Friday is acknowledged by their owners and managers to be a mall phenomenon. So smaller stores might offer the same 15% to 25% bargains you could find on any other random Friday throughout the year, while the squares tend to be no more empty or busy because chains are desperate to lure shoppers. For any loss of customers to the malls, there’s probably a gain from others who want to look for presents while staying far away from the worst of the season’s craziness.

I remember what Crate & Barrel manager Mike Zetlan told me years ago, before the store left Harvard Square — that he was “pleasantly surprised” by his Black Friday turnout, but that it fell far short of a mall frenzy. “Harvard Square is definitely more laid back. At every other store, you’re pushing people back, [but] this is nice and relaxed, the way Cambridge is supposed to be,” he told me.