Wednesday, May 22, 2024

The World’s Only Curious George Store opens in Harvard Square in April 2012. (Photo: Ron R. via Yelp)

Curious George’s long history in Cambridge came to a close quietly during the Covid pandemic, when a potentially reimagined, relocated book and toy store lost its licensing and closed its virtual doors.

“Today we say goodbye to The Curious George Store forever,” owner Astra Titus wrote April 28, 2021, on the store website and via social media. “I cannot quantify the grief that’s consumed me this past year as I have struggled to hold onto and breathe life into this entity that I love with every cell in my body.”

News about the store’s reprieve from closing during Harvard Square construction and an expected bricks-and-mortar move to Central Square were widely reported; coming at the height of Covid, this bad news wasn’t reported at all.

The site at John F. Kennedy and Brattle streets no longer features H.A. and Margret Reyes’ drawing of a precocious monkey and their book series’ iconic yellow and red; it’s been replaced by a quick-service Starbucks and its equally recognizable green-and-white mermaid logo.

The Starbucks that has replaced the bookstore at JFK and Brattle streets in Harvard Square. (Photo: Marc Levy)

What happened was explained by final owner Astra Titus by phone Nov. 24 from upstate New York.

The original store, Curious George Goes to WordsWorth, closed in 2011; Adam and Jamie Hirsch reopened The World’s Only Curious George Store at the same prominent 1 JFK St. address a year later.

When Equity One bought that and surrounding properties to build The Collection at Harvard Square, it looked like construction and an inevitable rent increase would mean another end to the iconic store. But Regency Centers took over the site, changing the name of the project to The Abbot, and there was new hope.

Curious George could stay at The Abbot under a long-term lease “favorable” to all, even keeping a ground-floor entrance somewhere else in the building, said Sam Stiebel, vice president of investments for Regency, in November 2017. “Given that one of our priorities for this project is maintaining a dynamic and interesting retail mix in Harvard Square, we knew it was imperative to find a way to maintain Curious George as a tenant,” Stiebel said.

The former bookstore space under construction in August 2020. (Photo: Marc Levy)

At the end of the initial two-year, construction-era lease, though, the Hirsches were barely breaking even, according to Titus, a consultant who took over operations in 2018 and eventually bought the store in May 2019.

Though she had no experience running a bookstore, she had an advisory board filled with people who did, she told Publishers Weekly.

Harsh truths

The end of the short-term, lower-cost lease meant she was “more or less effectively evicted” from the building as of June 30, 2019, Titus said. “It became three times what the rent originally was.”

She also felt blindsided with new information about the store apart from the rent costs. “I was not made aware of certain knowledge that the previous owners had,” she said, declined to be more specific.

A Regency Centers spokesperson said Tuesday that the company sees it differently. The company “worked side-by-side” with the store from 2017 to “even after Curious George’s ownership changed hands,” said Eric Davidson, senior manager of communications, emailing from Jacksonville, Florida offices. “Ultimately, we couldn’t reach a mutual agreement on the structure of a new lease … We parted on good terms, and sincerely wished them the best of luck with their future endeavors.”

“Coming up to market rents was discussed at some point, as the original Curious George lease had rent that was below market, but it was not the only reason a new deal wasn’t struck,” Davidson said. He declined to elaborate.

Leaving Harvard Square

After the rent went back to market price, Titus looked away from Harvard Square — 1.2 miles away to Central Square, where she imagined turning the store into a community space with interactive elements, with a focus less about toys than about learning and creativity.

“Although people really cared about the Curious George store, [Harvard Square] was all big-box. There weren’t business owners really to support me,” Titus said. That led to a change in thinking to “the building of the Black community and the focus on small business in Central Square.”

“Education is a key to attacking inequalities,” said Titus, who is Black. Her approach to the store was as “the means to which people can find this place of belonging and not feel like they can’t go to college or they can’t read because they’re in a disadvantaged situation.”

Spaces under consideration in Central Square included new retail square footage at the base of the Watermark Central tower where Massachusetts Avenue and Main Street meet and at the 907 Main boutique hotel, said Michael Monestime, executive director of the Central Square Business Improvement District at the time.

A risky ”labor of love”

Shoppers crowd the Curious George store in May 2015. (Photo: Samuel G. via Yelp)

But it’s not that Harvard Square was unwelcoming to Titus, said Denise Jillson, executive director of the Harvard Square Business Association, in a Dec. 2 call.

“The whole idea was lovely, but it was not sustainable,” Jillson said. “I said to [Titus], don’t walk away from this deal – run away. We knew how much community support was given to Adam, who had experience in the industry and she didn’t, and he still could not make it, even in a prime location.”

Jillson, who has watched over business in the square since 2006, knew that Curious George was crowded with customers who would “walk in, look around, take a photo and order the same thing on Amazon for less money without the inconvenience of walking around with a bag.” Unlike Amazon, the Hirsches were setting rates not just to pay the rent but to give employees a living wage.

“It’s my job to bring in commerce, but also to help them be successful,” said Jillson, who watched Internet competition remove bookstore after bookstore from the square over the years. She knew that what Titus was buying from the Hirsches in addition to the Curious George name was the store’s debt – and a struggle. “It was such a mistake. I knew this would never be successful. She didn’t have to do it, but it was a labor of love.”

Losing licensing

Curious George dolls for sale at the Harvard Square store in August 2017. (Photo: Todd M. via Yelp)

Titus’ plan to move to Central Square meant leaving the home of not just the Curious George store for almost 20 years, but the home of the series’ authors, H.A. and Margret Rey. German-born Jews, the couple met in Brazil, fled Paris before Nazi occupation with the Curious George manuscript and eventually settled in a home near the square in the 1960s.

The move didn’t pan out, as Covid arrived early in 2020. A drop in revenue meant the store missed hitting the dollar amount needed to retain the license; NBCUniversal, Curious George’s license holders, declined to let her renew for use of the name and iconography, Titus said. The store’s license was the only ever granted for Curious George imagery, and that deal was made when publisher Houghton Mifflin owned the rights.

“It is so close-fisted – like [NBCUniversal] will not let anyone touch that imagery,” Titus said. “I wasn’t able to pay the licensing fee and I wasn’t bringing them any revenue, and so it was an opportune time for them just to finally close the door on it.”

It was the most heartbreaking part, Titus said, because it is difficult and expensive to get a new license instead of inheriting one.

In the end

Astra Titus with a family member in an Aug. 19, 2019, post from the World’s Only Curious George Store page on Facebook.

Letting go of the store was hard, she said, but the licensing issues made it certain that the fight was over. She wrote her note to the community and put the failed business venture behind her.

Her interest had never been in the commerce. Upon starting work with the Hirsches, she immediately felt the connection between the character of Curious George – the store and the monkey – and learning.

“Curious George showed us in the best way possible that you can belong anywhere, and that it’s okay if you make mistakes and it’s okay if you’re naughty or whatever,” she said, “because in the end, you’re still loved and you’re still worth everything to someone.”