Monday, June 24, 2024

Shoppers browse at Curious George & Friends on Tuesday in Harvard Square. The bookstore is closing after 16 years in business. (Photo: Chris Devers)

Two revered booksellers are closing in Harvard Square within the next month — Curious George & Friends after 16 years and the Globe Corner Bookstore after 29 — all too soon since the closing of McIntyre & Moore Booksellers, announced in April, after 28 years and Kate’s Mystery Books in 2009, after a quarter-century in business, and close calls with Rodney’s Bookstore last last year and the Grolier Poetry Book Shop in 2004.

Shutting down a bookstore is sad anywhere, but that the closings are happening in Cambridge is additionally painful. The city has been fluttering its eyelashes and blushing for decades as bouquets are handed it for having a top number of bookstores per square mile or capita, but as the years pass those claims sound more and more like something repeated without confirmation and likely growing badly out of date — or like a compliment meaning less and less as the competition dwindles. In the country of the digital, the one-storefront city is monarch.

The vows to keep selling online made by the Globe Corner Bookstore, like McIntyre & Moore and Kate’s before it, only add to concerns about retail in general at a time much of the city faces rezoning or a forced redefinition of what exactly it will be, for its residents and to the world, in the next few decades.

While residents cry out to save and expand on Cambridge’s legacy of village shops with cult followings, at least one of the people tasked with thinking about and acting on the city’s physical aspects is basically wondering: What’s the point?

“What is it that we’re really trying to achieve?” said Charles Studen, a Planning Board member, when hearing the early results of a North Massachusetts Avenue planning study at an April 26 meeting.

“If you look at what’s happening in America, not just here in Cambridge and Massachusetts, people are not going to retail stores. They’re shopping online. Internet shopping’s becoming more and more popular. And furthermore, when they do go shopping, they go to Ikea, Walmart and Target. And so while we may have this romantic notion that we would like to see all these wonderful little retail stores on the ground floor, I think it’s a problem.”

After all, Kate’s drew mystery lovers from around the region with its highly specialized stacks, readings and celebrity book signings; the Globe Corner focused on travel; and Curious George was a kids’ store with toys and games, readings and art classes and a readership given constant boosts through television appearances and a 2006 movie starring Will Ferrell. All offered personalized attention and the vast knowledge of their founders, owners and staff, and each was unique (although Curious George had competition not too far away in Porter and Inman squares in such stores as Stellabella Toys and Henry Bear’s Park). Not too long ago, this all sounded like the formula for how to survive in the digital era.

Factors at work

While the Globe Corner’s company president, Patrick Carrier, sets his store’s fate apart by citing his own seizure disorder as a cause for closing (and Kate Mattes had her own reasons), it’s hard not to see a particularly depressing trend at work. The store’s two Boston locations closed in 1997 and 2000, and the Harvard Square site moved from a larger spot on Church Street in 2006.

What does it take, then, to keep a bookstore open in Cambridge, of all places — where the eager adoption of technologies such as the Internet and e-readers and services such as Amazon and The Pirate Bay is at war with an intellectual tradition of savoring books and book culture — and are we now to be concerned about Lorem Ipsum Bookstore in Inman, Raven Used Books in Harvard and Seven Stars in Central? (It doesn’t look like Porter Square Books or Harvard Book Store are worth the worry, given the constant flow of shoppers.)

If Studen is right, the pounding being taken by bookstores is an omen of what faces other retailers.

There are other factors at work, though.

Real estate pressures: That Curious George founders Hillel Stavis and Donna Friedman pinned some of their troubles on a $15,000 monthly rent for a 1,000-square-foot store is telling; it’s possible there’s yet a future for the store in an area with less competition and more forgiving financial terms. Stavis and Friedman already shut down their Harvard Square general-interest bookstore, WordsWorth, seven years ago, bankrupt after 29 years.

“That space will lease out,” vowed commercial Realtor and then Harvard Square Business Association president John P. DiGiovanni, quoted by The Boston Globe. “I’m very optimistic that there will be a careful analysis of what goes in there, because that’s such a marquee location.” But what went in was Beauty and Main, a makeup store that lasted six years before closing for lack of business, while much of WordsWorth’s former space stayed empty, and what’s at 30 Brattle St. now is Leather World.

If a luggage retailer is what deserves marquee space, Harvard Square has been long misunderstood.

And unless there’s a market correction and ramping down of the rent and lease expectations raising prices in some cases to more than what real estate costs on Boston’s Newbury Street, the identity crisis of Harvard Square will continue. An area that built its reputation on small and quirky can’t cost more than a street known for glamour and high-end wares, and those responsible for marketing the square might want to convince those selling space in the square that an assortment of banks and Luggage Worlds is a loser in the long run.

Consider the text the city’s tourism website uses to sell visitors on Harvard Square and how much remains true — and how much will remain true based on current trends:

“The Square” is world famous for its eclectic collection of small boutiques offering everything from haute couture to the latest in street fashions. Lively well after midnight almost any day of the week, over 100 restaurants and sidewalk cafes will tempt even the most adventurous palate. Music and entertainment are everywhere, and you can browse in one of the world’s largest concentration of bookstores. Street performers greet you at every corner offering songs, dramatic performances, juggling and magic. Catch some sizzling jazz or blues at a local nightclub or simply sit and watch the colorful crowds pass by.

Zoning: Community development staffers Taha Jennings and Iram Farooq, in discussing the North Massachusetts Avenue planning study, pointed to the need to fix zoning discouraging ground-floor retail. There’s a rule in the “Business A2” zone stretching along the avenue that actually gives developers less space to build if they include retail instead of going all residential, which is counterintuitive but an unintended reinforcement of their natural tendency to go the simple route of building living space and selling it instead of dealing with retailers or offices.

From the developers’ point of view, it’s a pain. “We’ve got to market the space, we’ve got to find the tenant and do the design work, and I’ve got to own this thing,” said John Darrah, a developer who lives in the area.

Zoning changes would force developers to keep ground-floor retail as the only way to achieve maximum floor area ratio, and the area between Route 16 and Porter Square would get improvements to make it more attractive to pedestrians and shoppers, Farooq said, and that includes the ones who would be zooming through the area in cars if the elimination of retail goes on as it is.

Creating an identity

Left unsaid is the result of adding large amounts of ground-floor retail that is better filled than empty and better leased long-term so developers don’t have to keep finding tenants: lower rents allowing quirky businesses that could build to the same critical mass that once drew people to Harvard Square. (Planning Board members such as H. Theodore Cohen disagree with Studen on the future of retail but have a more modest vision of getting “the neighborhood people walking out and about and staying within their own neighborhood. And maybe you’ll get people from Davis Square because it actually is not a long walk.”)

A bookstore can’t do it on its own, but any time people get together they’ll enjoy walking from store to store more than clicking from site to site. The market analysis nearing for the community development team should bear that out, and the staff already knows it wants to “help create an identity for the area” — like the kind Harvard Square used to have as a haven for book lovers, bohemians and intellectuals in general.

In the meantime, residents simply want to hang on to what they have, even if all they have is potential.

“We weren’t out to pioneer retail, but to preserve what we have, because we know when you knock out retail in a certain area, it becomes a pretty dead area, especially for walking,” resident Michael Roam told the Planning Board. “The vision that we don’t want is a thoroughfare, and that’s what we were coming up against.  … Once it’s gone, you know, it’s gone for 50 to 100 years.”