The Covid-19 pandemic has affected each of us in life-altering ways, big and small. Some changes have been universal, others individual, but the pandemic’s effects have reached every one of us, on every continent. Cambridge is no exception, including its small businesses.

Since the start of 2020, small businesses across Massachusetts have reported plummeted revenues (by 44 percent over the course of the year) and closed their doors permanently (37 percent so far), according to researchers at Opportunity Insights.

“We are constantly hearing stories of small businesses making the tough decision to close,” said Theodora Skeadas, executive director of Cambridge Local First. “These have been undoubtedly difficult days for so many of our local businesses.”

As part of ongoing work to capture Cambridge history, the Cambridge Historical Society and Cambridge Local First have joined forces to reach out to local small-business owners and find out how the pandemic has affected their livelihood. This project, called Businesses Well Lived, starts with the story of three mainstays: City Girl Café, Harding House and Joie de Vivre. Each small-business owner shared her experiences.

Starting in 1997, City Girl Café welcomed hungry Cantabrigians with a cozy atmosphere where they could enjoy brunch and dinner or order catering. This restaurant offered a mouthwatering menu with an Italian flair. Many Google reviews sang its praises, but one summed up the experience with this simple summary: “Such a cozy, hipster and laid-back cafe! The service was amazing and the food was very delicious.”

The café has since closed its doors, but owner Lauren Anderson stressed the role that government should play in supporting and protecting small businesses.

“The government needs to help their local, small restaurants and other businesses. Too little is being done, and Cambridge is going to be drastically affected by this,” Anderson said.

A half-mile away, Harding House stands tall. Rachael Solem bought this labor of love in 1997 and turned it into a 14-room bed and breakfast filled for the next two decades with the aromas of quiche and coffee, quiet conversations and the bustle of guests with newspapers. On Thursdays, staff would set up evening wine and cheese services; when a new artist showcased their work, Harding House would hire a jazz trio for the opening. With the March shutdown and cancellations pouring in, it quickly became apparent to Solem that her business would not survive the economic effects of the pandemic. She made the decision to sell, though she still owns and runs the Irving House bed and breakfast, also in Cambridge.

“The community of guests, employees and community partners is much bigger than the owners,” Solem said. “We’re grateful to still be in the business of hospitality. We love it.”

Linda Given opened the doors to Joie de Vivre in 1984, but closed them in late 2020, after the pandemic shutdown (which followed a rise in rent). Her “old-school gift shop” provided toys, cards, kaleidoscopes, jewelry and a wide variety of other things. Given laments the loss of small business in Cambridge and worries that the city will become “soulless” without it.

Her plea to shoppers is simple and heartfelt: “Please, please, please don’t just say, ‘Shop small business’ and then succumb to the deadly convenience of large, impersonal mega corporations,” she said. “To quote the famous sneaker ad, and put it in a small-business shopping context, ‘Just do it.’ Small businesses will not make it without support from you.”

To get the full story of Businesses Well Lived, visit the Cambridge Historical Society website.

About the Cambridge Historical Society 

We engage with our city to explore how the past influences the present to shape a better future. We strive to be the most relevant and responsive historical voice in Cambridge. We do that by recognizing that every person in our city knows something about Cambridge’s history, and their knowledge matters. We support people in sharing history with each other – and weaving their knowledge together – by offering them the floor, the mic, the platform. We shed light where historical perspectives are needed. We listen to our community. We live by the ideal that history belongs to everyone.

Our theme for 2021 is “How Does Cambridge Mend?” Make history with us at cambridgehistory.org.


Marieke Van Damme is executive director of the Cambridge Historical Society.

This post was corrected Jan. 19, 2021, to remove an incorrect reference to one of the businesses being black-owned.

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