Harvard Square

Ground zero for so much, for so many
By LLOYD SCHWARTZ  |  November 15, 2006

40th_brattle_1
OLD STAPLE, NEW APPRECIATION: The Brattle Theatre is one of Harvard Square’s few remaining landmarks.

Forty years ago, hard to imagine, I was still a graduate student, trying to live on a $1500-a-year scholarship, a teaching fellowship, and grading papers for large courses at $5 a head (you could just about manage that 40 years ago). Harvard Square was very different then. There were record stores (plural), with especially knowledgeable salespeople at the Harvard Coop (Helge) and Minute Man (Bernie). Three cafeterias stayed open all night: the Hayes Bickford (a/k/a “the Bick”); Albianis (near the UT, the University Theatre, now the Harvard Square Theatre; then it had only one large auditorium); and the Waldorf. For lunch I gorged on brown paper bags full of the juiciest big-bellied fried clams and the most delectable curlicue French fries this side of Brussels, at Mike’s Place on Dunster Street, and on ice cream at Brigham’s (“Could I have a vanilla cone?” I asked the server once; “Easier said than done!” he replied with enthusiasm) or a vanilla frappe with an egg in it at Bailey’s.

Harvard Square’s elegant restaurants were the Blacksmith House, on Brattle Street (site of Longfellow’s “spreading chestnut tree”), where the wait staff were refugees and the pastries were heavenly; Chez Dreyfus, on Church Street, which served rabbit; and Chez Jean, on Shepard Street, where you could afford a superb French dinner. At the Harvard Faculty Club, horse steak was the cheapest item on the menu. There were cream-cheese-and-caviar sandwiches on bulky rolls to go at Elsie’s on Mt. Auburn Street, sublime hamburgers at Mr. Bartley’s, and hundreds of varieties of imported beer at the Wursthaus. Cold lazy man’s lobster was only $2.50, when the Coach Grill on Boylston Street (now JFK Street) had it on special. And the terrific hot dogs at the tiny Tastee, right in the middle of Harvard Square, were even cheaper. Only the Chinese-restaurant situation was as dire then as it is now. We had to wait for Joyce Chen, at her fancy new restaurant on Memorial Drive, to introduce us to sizzling Sichuan cuisine.

At the Brattle Theatre, the entire audience shouted (correctly), “Play it, Sam” and “I’m shocked, shocked” along with Humphrey Bogart and Claude Rains during the regular Bogart festivals. Then everyone would go a few steps for the perfect martini at the Casablanca or coffee at the Blue Parrot, or for fancy soaps or aromatic candles at Truc, in the same building.

Storefronts hadn’t yet been boarded up after student protest riots. Brine’s was the sporting-goods store of choice, Dickson Brothers the place for hardware. I still have a three-inch-wide bright yellow tie dotted with pink roses from Krackerjacks. And there were countless bookstores, new and used, wherever you turned. Pangloss, the Star, Schoenhof’s for foreign books (fortunately still in business), later the Temple Bar. What a shock when Mr. (did I ever learn his first name?) Rosen’s beloved Mandrake moved from JFK to Story Street. The Grolier was not only a place where you could find practically every book of poems in print, it was also where you could hang out with other poets, or overhear the people sitting on owner Gordon Cairnie’s couch talking about poetry. Robert Lowell was teaching at Harvard and everyone — anyone (you didn’t have to be a Harvard student) — who knew about his weekly “office hours” could bring their poems to an airless, windowless, smoke-filled basement room under Harvard’s Quincy House dining hall. Such “local” poets as Frank Bidart, Robert Pinsky, and Gail Mazur were among the regulars, as were such talented undergraduates as Jonathan Galassi (now editor-in-chief at Farrar, Straus, and Giroux) and controversial biographer and memoirist James Atlas. After “office hours,” we’d follow Lowell to the Iruña (just closed this year) for Basque omelets and sangria and try to stop him from picking up the check.

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