Shopping in the Square

Dear Reader,

Shopping during the pandemic has its challenges. When the lockdowns began in Massachusetts in March, we all turned to the internet for our needs and received our purchases through brown cardboard boxes in the mail. Amazon deliveries were so frequent to my apartment building that the storage lockers (where we sometimes receive packages) were stuffed to capacity and still boxes piled up in the mailroom and by the building entrances. Months later, the pandemic buying died down and malls again opened, meaning that we can once more shop about on foot rather than just online.

Recently, I stopped by Harvard Square en route to another engagement. It was Labor Day, which meant schools were closed and students and others were milling about the streets. Harvard Square is a local hub and even though it was somewhat crowded, foot traffic was certainly nowhere near pre-pandemic levels. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, more people were seemingly outside than in. People were lined up in front of cafés and restaurants to retrieve their pick-up orders and all outdoor tables were claimed. While some restaurants are allowing indoor seating with adherence to capacity restrictions, even Tatte Bakery and Cafe (more here) — one of Harvard Square’s largest cafés—only offers a few outdoor tables along the store front.

All businesses restricting access to consumers creates a uniquely human problem…um… where to use the facilities. I say that this is a human problem because all other animals (save for the well-trained house pet) seemingly pay little attention to where they do their business. On any other day, Harvard’s student center is open and public restrooms are available on the ground floor. However, it was Labor Day and the University was closed. Most all shops in Harvard Square are boutique-like and do not offer public restrooms. Additionally, many cafes that only provide outdoor seating have closed their restrooms (I will note that Peet’s Coffee is at least one exception). So, your best bets seem to be a reservation at a restaurant, slipping into one of the hard-to-find loos at the Coop Bookstore or, even, sneaking past the reception of the Charles Hotel.

Another small inconvenience of shopping in a place like Harvard Square is that it’s harder to linger around. In the summer, Harvard usually fills its lawn with colorful metal chairs and tables and stations very many similar setups in front of the student center in the Square. Today, all such seating is gone without a trace and all that remains are the few stone seats that are anchored to the ground. Green space in the Square is also scarce and because it was a beautiful day, predictably filled with bodies. For this reason, when I had some time to kill after pacing up and down the main drag, I went one block west and found the streets to be near empty. I sat in the shade literally on the edge of the Harvard Lampoon Building near the corner of Plympton and Bow. There are no businesses facing this little stretch of street, which made it a tranquil refuge in an otherwise lively area…until someone parked in front of me, rolled down the window and proceeded to carry out a loud phone conversation….

Harvard Lampoon Building

Other pandemic-era changes include closed fitting rooms, one-way shopping aisles, mandatory masks, and contactless purchasing (i.e. no cash and the cashier signs for the card). While 100% of these changes are inconvenient, it is, OF COURSE, better to be safe than sorry.

Be safe out there!



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