Business

Hilton’s Tent City packs up for Cambridge after decades in Boston

David Kramer, who worked at Hilton's Tent City on Friend Street for over 30 years, on the now empty fifth floor.

Jim Davis/Globe Staff

David Kramer, who worked at Hilton's Tent City on Friend Street for over 30 years, on the now empty fifth floor.

Dave Kramer has finished packing up his bags — and his tents, jackets, and boots.

Hilton’s Tent City has set up camp on the other side of the Charles River, in Cambridge’s Central Square, after 70 years in Boston.

Advertisement

The business — one of Boston’s oldest independent retailers — has supplied hiking and camping equipment to generations of outdoor enthusiasts. The five-level store was a familiar sight on Friend Street to North Station commuters, as well as to Bruins and Celtics fans on their way to games at TD Garden.

Kramer’s stepfather, Irving Liss, founded Hilton’s and remained actively involved in the store until his death in 2009 at the age of 88.

Get Talking Points in your inbox:
An afternoon recap of the day’s most important business news, delivered weekdays.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

Revenue had slipped in recent years partly because of competition from Amazon and other online retailers, Kramer said, and the property became just too valuable to resist selling. On Friday, family members sold the nearly 14,000-square-foot building to a group of local investors for $5.1 million.

Money wasn’t the only reason for the move, said Kramer, who manages Hilton’s and has about a half-dozen employees. Inadequate parking and increasing traffic congestion made the location less than ideal for a retail operation, he said. “The value of the building way exceeded how we were selling in the retail environment,” Kramer said.

Kramer said the decision to leave Friend Street actually was made nearly two years ago, but that the search for a new spot began in earnest earlier this year when it became clear that a deal to sell the building would happen.

Advertisement

The new storefront on Massachusetts Avenue is much smaller — about 4,000 square feet, in a former Citibank branch. But there’s a city parking lot out back, a Red Line stop nearby, and more foot traffic on weekends.

Kramer has been moving the store’s inventory to the new location in recent weeks and hopes to start doing business in Cambridge by early next week.

“It’s everything we were looking for,” he said of the new location.

Meanwhile, the people who bought the Hilton’s building at 264 Friend St. are preparing a renovation project that could cost as much as $3 million. They want to restore the old storefront to resemble its original appearance, refinish hardwood floors, put in new windows, and fix the exterior masonry. Their hope is to restore the historic feel of the building, which dates to 1896.

Tony Staffier, manager of Hilton’s Tent City talked with a customer at the store’s old location on Friend Street in the North End. On Friday, local investors bought the Friend Street building for $5.1 million and Hilton’s will move to a new Massachusetts Avenue location in Cambridge’s Central Square.

David L Ryan/Globe Staff

Tony Staffier, manager of Hilton’s Tent City talked with a customer at the store’s old location on Friend Street. On Friday, local investors bought the Friend Street building for $5.1 million and Hilton’s will move to a new Massachusetts Avenue location in Cambridge’s Central Square.

The buyers — who include Mark Epker of Vantage Real Estate, Jason Weissman of Boston Realty Advisors, and Jason Korb of Capstone Communities — are seeking to obtain federal and state historic tax credits to subsidize a significant portion of the renovation costs.

“To do the restorations that we’re doing, the tax credits are absolutely necessary,” Korb said.

They’ll likely have a restaurant or fitness center on the ground floor, while upper levels will be converted to four roughly 2,500-square-foot office suites. Boston Realty Advisors has signed on to market the spaces.

Weissman said the location is ideal: a building with more than a century of history, essentially sandwiched between giant construction projects at North Station and the Government Center garage.

“We’re feeding off all the great momentum in the area,” Weissman said. “That’s what Boston’s about, balancing the old and the new.”

The move represents a major new chapter for Hilton’s, which Liss started in 1947 as a military surplus store in the old Scollay Square. He moved the business to Friend Street in the 1960s after the original location was taken by eminent domain as part of the Government Center urban renewal effort.

Kramer said he’s lost about a month’s worth of sales due to the disruption, so he’s eager to open the doors again.

“We wanted to reinvent,” he said. “It was time for a change.”

Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.
Loading comments...
Real journalists. Real journalism. Subscribe to The Boston Globe today.