Black Ink closing amid evolving local retail scene in Harvard Square

POSTED BY: ABBIE GRUSKIN NOVEMBER 20, 2019 in Scout Cambridge

After 18 years in its tiny, efficiently packed Harvard Square storefront, stationary and gift store Black Ink is closing at the end of the year. Susan Corcoran, who has owned and operated the store since 2001, cites the rising cost of rent as her primary reason for shutting the doors to her beloved store for good.

“There wasn’t really a decision to be made,” Corcoran explains. “It was completely not possible to do business here. The rent I was offered was unsustainable. I’ve weathered a lot of storms here in 18 years. I’ve had construction, I’ve had many events here in the square. I made it through all of that, but I cannot overpay rent. No small business owner would do that.”

Black Ink isn’t alone in bidding farewell to the heart of Harvard Square at the intersection of Brattle Street, Massachusetts Avenue, and John F. Kennedy Street. Local, family-owned businesses and larger chains—such as Crema Cafe, Urban Outfitters, and Chipotle, among others—have left the bustling tourist destination in the past year. Relatively new to the square are three development companies: Asana Partners, which bought 1-8 and 17-41A Brattle St. in December 2017; Regency Centers, which is currently revamping the Brattle, Corcoran, and Abbot buildings that it also purchased in 2017; and the investment firm Morningside Group—led by Hong Kong-born billionaire Gerald Chan—which acquired the still vacant property at 10 Church St. in 2015.

Despite the recent departures of local businesses from the square, Denise Jillson, executive director of the Harvard Square Business Association (HSBA), maintains that 70 percent of the stores in Harvard are still locally owned and independent. 

Theodora Skeadas, executive director of Cambridge Local First, says that while the city has a lower-than-average percentage of vacant storefronts (close to 3 percent as of 2019 compared to the national average of 10 percent in 2017), she suspects that the current concentration of vacancies in Harvard Square might be a result of the location’s attractive reputation and subsequent high cost, along with the area’s potential for development. The Cambridge Community Development Department (CDD) estimates 70 vacant storefronts in the city, 21 of which are located in Harvard Square.

“Most of the vacant storefronts are concentrated in Harvard Square,” Skeadas says. “Harvard Square has a certain name recognition that has historically, on its own merit, brought in huge numbers of tourists to the area.

“I think also we’re just seeing general development in the whole region, and this is part of that,” she adds. “Boston in general is a very attractive place to invest. Prices are just increasing, both commercial and residential. There’s this phenomenon in which when one large building sells, it sends a signal. Other adjacent building owners are then increasingly enticed to sell their own properties for higher values, and I think there’s a cascading effect that’s occurring, specifically in Harvard Square.”

“There are vacant stores in other places, but I think the concentration of them in Harvard Square is more visible,” Jan Devereux, vice mayor of Cambridge, explains. 

Devereux adds that rents surrounding Harvard are higher than other places in the city because the square is “so much a symbol” for Cambridge. She says that the high rent, in addition to decreased foot traffic from construction, makes it hard for independent stores in particular to stay afloat. 

Jillson, who said HSBA’s mission is to promote business of any kind in the square—whether local or chain—believes that change in Harvard comes primarily from consumers, whose shopping interests are constantly evolving. 

“The complaint that we hear often is that, ‘Well, it’s the chains that are taking over,’ ” she explains. “It’s interesting how tastes change, but what ends up staying is, in fact, the local flavor. So I believe that our Harvard Square people are very smart. They know what they want, and they will patronize the stores that they feel most comfortable with. We try to just stay the hell out of the way and let the consumer decide, because frankly it’s how you buy, it’s how you purchase, because I can’t control that.” 

She cites Felipe’s Taqueria, The Harvard Bookstore, and BerryLine as examples of locals choosing small, family-owned alternatives to national chains. She believes that it’s a “misconception” that rent is forcing local businesses out of Harvard Square. Jillson adds she was not versed in the specifics of Black Ink’s situation, and that HSBA “does not take part in lease negotiations between tenants and property owners.”

Corcoran expresses that her customers have remained loyal during her time in Harvard despite a “continued dip in sales” over the past few years, which she attributes to ongoing construction and sparse parking that have “hampered foot traffic” in the square. She also believes that business at Black Ink has been impacted by other local businesses departing the square. 

“Change is normal,” she says. “This, in the last two years, is completely atypical. You don’t see the displacement of dozens of businesses within two years of time. This is not a normal situation.

“The building has changed ownership,” Corcoran adds. “Not because of anything that you’ve done or the community not supporting you. The community is really supportive, but they can’t support you if you’re displaced. We appeal to many ages, have many products not available elsewhere, and offer a wide range of reasonably priced goods. After 18 years of buying for my stores, I feel confident in my selection of merchandise and our ability to display it in a fun and experiential way that appeals to many different people.”

Corcoran has recently invited locals to speak up through a project called “Dear Asana Partners” that she started in September after announcing the impending closing of her store. Sprawling sheets of white paper deck the entrance of the shop alongside a sign instructing patrons to jot down their comments for Asana Partners, signed with their names and hometowns so that the comments aren’t anonymous.

“I’m just trying to give people a platform to speak out,” she explains. “I wanted them to have a chance to really write down their feelings. This is just heartfelt. And you can see where people are coming from. There’s people from Somerville and Cambridge. The students are from all over the United States. I just wanted to allow them to weigh in on the situation.”

Corcoran reluctantly hired a lawyer to facilitate communication with Asana Partners after repeated attempts at reaching out to discuss rent were left unanswered. She began negotiating with Asana Partners a year ago to no avail, and she now plans to send the community feedback to the company before the shop closes this winter. 

Vice Mayor Devereux says the city tends toward a “hands-off” approach to working with businesses, but recognizes the role that Black Ink and other locally owned shops play in the square. 

“It is sad to see Black Ink go,” Devereux says. “I think there’s a lot of angst, particularly if you go on social media. I think people are sad and frustrated that we don’t seem to have more control. I think people really like Black Ink. It’s the kind of stuff that you don’t see in other stores. It should be the kind of store that defines Harvard Square, and it was in an earlier era.”

Though Cambridge Local First was unable to help Black Ink—Corcoran only approached them to give notice that she’d soon be closing—the group attempts to support local businesses in the city like the Cambridge Artists’ Cooperative, for which Cambridge Local First helped fundraise so that its shop could afford to remain in Harvard Square. 

“Sometimes there’s not very much we can do,” Skeadas explains. “We do the best that we can. It depends at which stage they reach out to us. We’re looking at creative ways to work with them.”

Skeadas believes that one way to help local businesses thrive, both in Harvard Square and beyond, might involve adopting Bernie Sanders’ policy for Burlington, Vermont, that reserves all first-floor retail storefronts for small, local businesses and places banks and other large corporate chains in second floor spaces. 

“It’s one way to create space for local businesses,” she says.

Plans like Sanders’ model a way to carve out space for local businesses in the square and prove just how essential they are to a cohesive retail environment.

Cambridge Local First