Old Harvard Sq. Faces Brand-Name Onslaught

Next entry in the FmH Dept. of Solastalgia [thanks to Seth].

“Maybe it was the last greasy burger served at the Tasty Diner, or the final copy of Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’ sold at Wordsworth books, or the last Hohner harmonica discovered amid the dusty bins of sheet music at Briggs and Briggs.

Ask longtime denizens of Harvard Square and they will be able to lament the exact moment the old square seemed to lose its bohemian charm, when a favored haunt or hole-in-the-wall vanished, often giving way to a national chain.” (Yahoo! News)

The occasion for the article is the imminent demise of the Brattle Theatre, one of the last independent movie houses in the area (another, semingly doing better financially, is the Coolidge Corner Theatre in my neighborhood in adjacent Brookline). As the quotation above notes, the article also mentions the passing of the Briggs and Briggs music store, the Wursthaus German deli, the Tasty lunch counter and Wordsworth Books, which closed earlier this year and whose site now houses a beauty supply shop. As beloved as it was to me for decades, I am actually surprised to hear Wordsworth referred to as one of the departed bastions of the ‘old’ Square, since I was there at its opening as well as its closing. (Anyone else remember George’s Folly, which occupied the site prior to Wordsworth?). A more complete catalogue of lamentation would also include the Patisserie Francaise, where I was to be found many a morning during my undergraduate years and long afterward with a newspaper, a croissant and a French coffee in front of me, long long before there was such a thing as Starbuck’s; Elsie’s Lunch, of course; the Orson Welles Cinema; the old Coop; Club Passim, which exists only in a dim incarnation of its illustrious past today; and any number of departed local eateries. (As an aside, why in the world has Harvard Square of all places not been able to sustain having a natural food restaurant for any length of time??)

Among longtime local institutions which remain and must be cherished are Wordsworth’s competitor across the Square, the Harvard Bookstore; Bob Slate Stationers; the Grolier, as mentioned; Herrell’s Ice Cream; Out-of-Town News; and the Pamplona café. While some people would grimace at the thought, I still love the Hong Kong and the Yenching, where I have indulged my passion for Chinese food for decades. My barbershop is still there, the apothecary, and, if I smoked, the tobacconist’s. But the article is correct, the old Square withers away. For many years after I moved across the river in 1985, I marvelled at the fact that Harvard Square remained my automatic destination of choice for funky shopping, basic services, and places to meet friends for a meal or a drink. But I hardly ever go there anymore, even though I have an office in Cambridge. And although people complain about the parking situation, that is not what dissuades me, because I have retained a habitual route through the Square that takes me past many longstanding secret parking spots (which I shall not share with you here!). I used to think that I could not live anywhere that did not have the bohemian, intellectual, independent character of a Cambridge. In fact, I still feel that way, but increasingly such places are not to be found in physical space, and one looks for the equivalents in cyberspace.

Here is a link to a webcam view of the Square, courtesy of Cardullo’s gourmet food shop.

What are your reminiscences of the departed Harvard Square or your psychogeographic equivalents?