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Hip in the Square

Indulge in fun and frippery, oddities, esoterica, and fine fare

A window onto Harvard Square will always reflect shops and restaurants outside the mainstream, like Black Ink on Brattle Street, full of quirky gifts and notions that amuse its shoppers.
By Patricia Harris and David Lyon
Globe Correspondents / November 30, 2008
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Someone always sounds the death knell for Harvard Square whenever a long-established business closes or a national chain store moves in. We're certainly no fans of corporate homogenization, but the passing of Harvard Square, as Mark Twain once observed about reports of his death, has been "greatly exaggerated." A few shop fronts change nearly as often as the fresh faces of each new class of students, but across the generations Harvard Square remains the crossroads of funk and philosophy, of idealism and consumerism, of red brick and green politics.

The village of Newtowne, as Cambridge was called when it was settled in 1630, was only six years old when the Massachusetts Bay Colony established a college on its edges. It took two centuries, but by the 1850s, the fame of the college had eclipsed the village and the original commercial district became known simply as Harvard Square. After all, the gates of Harvard College open into the square, releasing the youthful scholars from the rigors of thought to the carefree hedonism of food, drink - and cool new jeans.

Moreover, Harvard itself has crept out of its yard and into the streets. Harvard Lampoon Castle, at the junction of Bow and Mount Auburn streets, sets the square's none-too-serious tone with the architectural raspberry of a flagpole extending from the "mouth" of the bowler-hatted building. (It is, after all, home of the Harvard student humor publication.)

Red-brick preservationists may bemoan the elegant concrete and glass Modernism of Holyoke Cen ter, which houses, among other things, the Harvard Events & Information Center. But the Massachusetts Avenue plaza in front of the building has become the area's social and intellectual market square. This is where passersby sign petitions supporting wind power, stop to watch a street performer, or pit their wits against The Chessmaster, Murray Turnbull.

But, like the students, most people come to Harvard Square to eat, drink, and shop.

If you're a skateboarder or backpacker, you might find kindred spirits in The Pit, a brick-lined mini-amphitheater (OK, it's a hole) next to the main MBTA entrance. Everyone else arranges to meet beneath the clock in front of the Harvard Coop (that's KOOP, not KOH-op, to you folks from away), or by the Out of Town News kiosk where the worldly-wise have gotten their fix of overseas newspapers and magazines for more than half a century. (At this writing, beleaguered Out of Town may close over the winter, a potential blow to Cantabridgian cosmopolitan claims.) Next to that landmark at Zero Harvard Square stands the gawky sculpture, Omphalos, strategically placed so Harvard folk can gaze upon it. (It's Greek for "navel.")

While Harvard Square overflows with boutiques that sell everything from "experienced clothing" to interview outfits, booksellers represent the authentic retail identity of a district that serves Cambridge's confederacy of scholars and intellectual aspirants. The book trade has suffered some attrition in recent years, but you can still climb the granite steps into tiny Grolier Poetry Book Shop, where slender volumes of verse ascend the shelves toward the heavens. Just around the corner, Harvard Book Store, whose only relation to the university is its proximity, remains one of the nation's leading independent booksellers. Whenever a Major Novel or Very Important Book is published, expect the author to show up here for a reading. Wandering through Schoenhof's Foreign Books is a little like trekking a giant map - when you cross the aisle, the titles change from French to German to Spanish to Russian to . . . And for readers who still get all fuzzy inside over Marx, Engels, and Lenin, Revolution Books manages to keep the proletarian polemical flame lighted in these deeply capitalist times.

Like bookstores, certain venerable Harvard Square establishments thrive because they transcend fashion. Each autumn a new generation of students discovers the tonsorial rites of LaFlamme Barber Shop, sitting on a spinning leather throne as a master barber coaxes order out of chaos. They revel in the pleasures of Cadbury Flake chocolate bars or cinnamon raisin swirl peanut butter at Cardullo's Gourmet Shoppe. They find themselves torn between a People's Republic of Cambridge (burger with cole slaw and Russian dressing served with french fries) and a George W. Bush Lame Duck (double-cheddar Texas BBQ burger with sweet potato fries) at Mr. Bar tley's Burger Cottage. And, even in tobacco-averse Cambridge, a certain cadre joins the ancient lineage of Harvard cigar-smokers by buying their first stogies at tobacconist Leavitt & Peirce, established in 1883 and still rolling.

Today's alt-culture scene has migrated to the shops of The Garage, a ramped shopping center between JFK and Dunster streets that has finally found its niche with a ground level food court of chowder, ice cream, coffee, and pho vendors, and upper levels that house a Japanese anime shop, a hemp products store, a tattoo and body-piercing parlor, and Newbury Comics, which not only stocks real vinyl records, but also the turntables on which to play them. When you walk into Newbury, the mechanical voice of Zoltar calls from a coin-operated booth in the corner, where a turban-clad torso offers to tell your fortune.

You don't need a fortune teller to predict that you'll drop some money in Harvard Square, which is a shopaholic's dream. Its modern-day bazaar suits almost every taste and whim, allowing the choice between Colombian mola applique tote bags from Tayrona or butter-soft leather handbags from Settebello, between Birkenstocks from Berk's or purple Hunter gum boots from The Tannery, between a box of four-way rubber bands at Black Ink or an engraved silver fountain pen at the Cross store.

The options only multiply at mealtime. When we took a British friend into Harvard Square to dine, he stood on the sidewalk utterly paralyzed by the number of choices. After ruling out Indian, Thai, Mexican, Tex-Mex, Spanish, Chinese, and several other ethnic cuisines, we took him to Casablanca to see the iconic Bogey and Bacall mural and eat the braised chicken with chickpeas and preserved lemon. The longtime (since 1955) bar-turned-restaurant is the quintessential Harvard Square hangout, especially if you're planning to catch a flick at the adjacent Brattle Theatre.

When the Brattle started showing art-house films in 1953, it established the pattern in Harvard Square for what, in the days before "hooking up," used to be called "date night." But dinner and a movie isn't the only option. Tuck into the vegan peanut curry at Veggie Planet before catching the 21st-century angst of a singer-songwriter at the legendary folky venue Club Passim under the same roof. Have an early dinner on star chef Mary Dumont's dayboat halibut at Harvest restaurant - one of the country's pioneers of New American cuisine - before watching a production at the American Repertory Theatre in the Loeb Drama Center just up the street. (Since the ART is Harvard's resident theater, it's de rigeur to return to the bar to conduct a post-mortem on the stagecraft.) Duck in beneath the neon to share plates of salt and pepper squid and crispy rose shrimp at the Hong Kong before yukking away the night in the Comedy Studio on the restaurant's third floor.

And that just scratches the surface. Tomorrow there will be a new wave of clipboard clutchers seeking signatures outside Holyoke Center, a hot new sneaker at Concepts, a new candy smoosh-in at Herrell's Ice Cream. You'll have to come back and do it all over again.

But different.

Patricia Harris and David Lyon, who live a few blocks from Harvard Square, can be reached at harris.lyon@verizon.net.