College Town or Ghost Town

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Why It's Hard to Run a Business in Cambridge

Living in a college town has its perks. You can barely go anywhere without walking past a coffee shop, bookstores are easy to find, and the students bring with them a wide range of diversity and culture. When school is in session, the area is thriving. For example, Harvard Square is crowded, cafes are filled to capacity with students on their laptops, and there are lines to get in to the best restaurants.

However, that all changes when Harvard essentially shuts down over the summer and winter breaks. On the plus side there are considerably less people out, making it easier to commute and get a coffee at Starbucks, but on the other hand some businesses may be significantly impacted by the downfall of foot traffic.

According to Theo Vallis, owner of Zoe’s Restaurant near Harvard Square, Harvard undergrads, graduate students, and faculty make up a significant portion of the restaurant’s clientele. The place is popular and busy during regular school months, but, according to Vallis, the restaurant may see an approximate 20 percent reduction in business during the summer and winter.

“I don’t think you ever make up for [the lost business]. The only thing you can do is to beat last month or last year,” Vallis said.

Zoe’s is not the only business caught in the ebb and flow of clientele that seems to follow the pattern of college calendars, and some would say that Harvard is not the only culprit. According to Mike who has worked at the Cellar Wine and Spirits for about 11 years, “it’s just part of the ecosystem around here,” and all Cambridge colleges and universities contribute to the varying levels of customers that businesses see, which yo-yos throughout the year.

“The cycle of businesses is entirely rooted in the colleges around here,” Mike said. Additionally, he said that there is a dramatic change in the volume of business the store sees depending on the time of year, and that college calendars are the primary indicators of business.

When asked about owning a business in Cambridge, Eduard, owner of Cambridge Instant Shoe Repair, had a different perspective on the situation, saying “it’s the worst thing you can ever do.” However, instead of citing fluctuating business as his rationale, Eduard explains that people in the area tend to pay with credit cards, inducing high fees for the owner.

“They want a $3 shoelace and they give me their card – you’re telling me no one has $3 in their pockets?” Eduard said. This may be another, separate reason why some businesses in the area are losing money.

Regardless, Vallis said that “there are slow times in any business” along with external factors in every city that may detract from patronage. In Cambridge’s case, as a unique home to so many universities and their fluctuating schedules, it can sometimes be tough to decide where we are truly living – a college town or a ghost town?