My father took me to Harvard Square quite a bit when I was a kid.
We’d browse at Wordsworth, flip through the CDs at Newbury Comics, and sit at a high top at 33 Dunster Street, where I’d order a Shirley Temple and a cheeseburger with fries.
I was too young to understand the square’s mystique but not too young to feel it: the Ivy League heft and, a couple of decades after Joan Baez debuted at Club 47, the tendrils of bohemia.
My dad was in his element there. I liked that.
Over the lunch, he’d tell me about the Richard Thompson album he’d just picked up. And we’d talk Red Sox and school and summer camp.
Then we’d make our way back to whatever beater he was driving at the moment and head home, a little happier than we’d arrived.
My dad died years ago. And as an adult, I haven’t spent as much time in Harvard Square. But a couple of weeks ago, I took my 14-year-old daughter and her friend across the Charles in search of some of the feeling I’d had as a kid.
We got a spot on Massachusetts Avenue, not far from where I used to park with my dad, and we started walking.
But I couldn’t help but think of how much the place had changed.
Wordsworth had closed years ago; 33 Dunster Street was a distant memory, too. And it only took my daughter a minute to pull out her phone, search for Starbucks, and take off with her friend.
I wanted to tell them, as they were disappearing down the sidewalk, that this wasn’t the experience they were supposed to be having. That the place had been corrupted, somehow.
That Harvard Square isn’t what is used to be.
But I stopped myself. Our outing had just begun. And I was partway through a new book that had me thinking differently about places like Harvard Square — and the ache I was feeling at that moment.
Love in the market
The Black Ink gift shop was tall and glassy on the outside and full of wonders within.
There were high-end notebooks and clever kitchen gadgets and kitschy packages of freeze-dried ice cream.
Susan Corcoran, who started the business with her late husband Tim, looked forward to the Christmas rush especially. Year after year, she’d watch the same families come back to fill their baskets with the cheeky and the meaningful.
The store didn’t belong to her in those moments; it belonged to them.
But after a North Carolina-based private equity firm called Asana Partners bought Black Ink’s building and raised the rent, she was forced to close.
It did not sit well.
As the end was approaching in the fall of 2019, she put up a small sign in the shop launching the “Dear Asana Partners” campaign. “Please let them know,” she wrote, “what you think about the displacement of local businesses like Black Ink.”
Within days, as MIT economic sociologist Catherine Turco recounts in her new book, “Harvard Square: A Love Story,” customers had scrawled hundreds of irate messages. “I am saddened and angered and betrayed,” one read. Businesses like Black Ink are the “beating soul of the city,” said another.
“I’m Marxist,” one Harvard Square radical wrote. “Keep our local companies!”
This is what Turco calls a “crazy love” for the local marketplace — a feeling so strong it can stir a socialist. And her project is to understand its power.
A native of the Boston suburbs, she draws, in part, on her personal history.
As a child, Turco made her own treasured visits to the square with her dad for Sunday morning bagels with extra cream cheese. As a student at Harvard, she shared late-night scorpion bowls with friends at the Hong Kong Restaurant. And her first date with her husband-to-be was in the neighborhood.
Much of our attachment to the marketplace, she argues, is rooted in the personal bonds we forge there. Even in the most banal corners.
If the Gap in Harvard Square closed, Turco writes, she wouldn’t miss the jeans and sweaters. But she’d get wistful about her childhood strolls through the store with her best friend, talking about boys and school and what the future might bring.
Our “crazy love” for the marketplace, though, can’t be entirely explained by these connections with friends and family.
Marketplaces, Turco says, are “surprisingly good” at “providing us with what psychologists and sociologists call a sense of ‘ontological security’ — i.e., a basic trust that our world is stable and as it appears to be, and that our place in it is secure.”
When we return to places like Harvard Square again and again, we feel grounded. We develop a firmer sense for who — and where — we are.
Turco recalls her hundreds of walks to the Crimson Corner newsstand. The familiar saunter across Mount Auburn and Brattle streets. The owner who always asked about her family and her work. The purchase of a newspaper, which said something — to herself? to the world? — about what she cared about.
The market offered a powerful sense of stability.
The problem, Turco writes, is that the market is an inherently unstable place. It changes as technology and tastes change. And that means the places that anchor us are destined to drift away.
No wonder that the departure of a favorite café or shop can leave us so unmoored.
Turco was heartbroken when Crimson Corner closed in May 2021. On her last visit to the shop, she offered the owner her condolences and a bottle of whiskey.
But if she was being honest, she later wrote in her book, she’d been part of the change that closed the place. With the news increasingly moving online, Turco hadn’t been popping into the shop as frequently as she once did.
And she was hardly the only one.
Of all the customers who bemoaned the closure of Black Ink, surely a few had turned to the digital square for a notebook or a package of freeze-dried ice cream.
If Turco laments the loss of small businesses like Black Ink and Crimson Corner, she also gives a sympathetic hearing to the Square’s landlords. One in particular: John DiGiovanni.
As a kid, DiGiovanni helped park cars in a lot his dad owned in the neighborhood. As a teenager, he stopped by Cappy’s Shoe Repair to listen to the old-timers.
As an adult, he works out of an office lined with photographs of the Square that date to the 19th century. And he helps fund all sorts of public improvement projects.
But whatever his communal instincts, DiGiovanni is an unapologetic capitalist.
He makes no bones about renting to chains. And he’s irritated by landlords who let dying businesses linger too long.
Turco sums up his attitude this way: “If today’s customers liked the shiny, new Warby Parker more than the Square’s dusty, old optical houses, that’s just the way things go.”
The square’s authenticity, DiGiovanni tells Turco, comes not from any particular mix of stores, but from “the mass of human beings coming together.
“There’s nothing more essential than that,” he says.
That probably takes it too far.
If DiGiovanni or the big out-of-state real estate investors who have bought up so much of the square in recent years tear out too much of the local character, something real will be lost.
But he has a point. A marketplace can only stay lively if it evolves. And time after time, the change that one generation has bemoaned has been embraced by the next. The shoddy simulacrum of the real Harvard Square has become a memory-maker all over again.
That afternoon my daughter and her friend and I spent in the square, we never made it to Starbucks. We stopped at a Tatte instead.
It was a good compromise: Instagrammable enough for the teenagers, classic enough for me. And that blend of new and old was apparently quite popular. The place was packed. But we eventually found a table — and we settled in for a nice chat.
A couple of days later, I asked my daughter what she made of Harvard Square. She liked it, she said.
Maybe, sometime soon, we’ll go back.