COVID’s suffocating grasp is choking businesses in Cambridge’s Central Square

COVID’s suffocating grasp is choking businesses in Cambridge’s Central Square

“I’m wondering whether or not I can survive,” he said last week. “Right now I’m just hoping and praying.”

Adelson has a lot of company in his worries. Central Square, home to an eclectic array of shops, and before the pandemic, a bustling restaurant and nightlife scene, is in many ways emblematic of the devastation the coronavirus has wrought on small businesses across the region and country — and of the way the virus’s suffocating grasp has spread into the most vibrant neighborhoods.

“We’re all worried,” said Cambridge Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui recently of what kind of Central Square will emerge from the pandemic.

Date spot Cuchi Cuchi called it quits in May after 19 years. The Field, a popular, no-frills Irish pub on Prospect Street, made it 25 years before closing in July.

Customers browse at Rodney's Book Store, which has been in the square for 20 years and will close on Oct. 31.
Customers browse at Rodney’s Book Store, which has been in the square for 20 years and will close on Oct. 31.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

The square’s signature performance venues have been silenced for months. The Cantab Lounge, a celebrated dive and live music spot that on some nights generated a ruckus loud enough to be heard through the wall of the pizza joint next door, has been a Cambridge institution since the 1930s. It was put up for sale earlier in the summer.

The future of Improv Boston, which in normal times is host to dozens of stand-up, sketch, and improv shows a week, is also in doubt.

Some restaurants are making a go of it with outdoor seating that, in some cases, swings into Massachusetts Avenue. But several watering holes have yet to reopen, and questions abound regarding whether they ever will, with beloved bars throughout Greater Boston shutting for good seemingly on a daily basis.

The square saw changes before the pandemic that made the neighborhood known for quirky boutiques, including a bookstore that specializes in crystals and a record shop that’s been around since the Eisenhower administration, a little less weird, with substantial luxury housing sprouting up along the Mass. Ave. corridor and a Target coming to the neighborhood in 2017.

Now, much of what defines Central appears to be in flux.

The Middle East, a legendary music venue in the square, has also been silenced for months by COVID-19.
The Middle East, a legendary music venue in the square, has also been silenced for months by COVID-19. Barry Chin/Globe Staff

September is usually the busy season for Teddy Shoes, as the return of school also means a return to dance class for some kids. This, Adelson said, will be “the crucial month” that decides whether the store continues or he is forced to shut it down, which is now a “definite possibility.”

“It would really crush me,” he said.

Adelson launched a GoFundMe in March to help the store with its finances, a fund-raising effort that helped in the initial months but, as Adelson notes “we still have a lot of bills to catch up on.” He did receive paycheck protection program, or PPP, funding from the federal government and received a $6,000 grant from the city. Such fiscal aid has helped, but it’s not enough, said Adelson.

He hasn’t punted the store’s rent yet, but has deferred other bills — credit cards, vendor invoices, and insurance. Before the public health emergency, Adelson had a few part-timers working at the store, but now he is the sole employee. He takes Tuesdays off and works the other six days of the week, but business is slow. He says he makes a sale or two a day.

“I’m not a world beater here, I’m not really rich, but I’m trying to make ends meet,” he said. “Now, it’s just, it’s brutal.”

A short walk away from Adelson’s shop, Improv Boston’s operations have been suspended for months.

Before the pandemic, the company, located a few doors down from The Field, was averaging about 40 shows a week, and its classes and performances brought in about 2,000 people a week, people who also might shop and dine locally.

But the company’s five full-time employees have been furloughed since June, and while they have put on some outdoor shows, they were free to the public and not profitable for the theater.

“Everything was great and then it wasn’t,” said Josh Garneau, the company’s managing director. “It feels like when you go to take a step on a staircase that isn’t there and everything is out of balance.”

Garneau would like to open for comedy classes in January, and then eventually host shows, but he acknowledges that the future is uncertain, and that not returning to its Prospect Street home of 11 years is a possibility.

Throughout the pandemic, the company’s rent has been partly deferred. Improv Boston still owes back rent, and insurance and software expenses are still there. Closing for good is not out of the question, Garneau said.

“We’re still spending money even though we’re not making it,” he said. “Frankly, the bank accounts are not unlimited.”

There are questions about other venues, too. Lynn Scannell, the daughter of Cantab Lounge owner Richard “Fitzy” Fitzgerald, said the pandemic nudged her 84-year-old father in the direction of retirement. The club is now for sale.

“We’re very much hoping that someone will come forward and keep the place going,” she said.

She is adamant Cantab would reopen if there is no buyer, but the timeline for such a move, like so much else, is not clear.

“If the governor would let us open, we would open, but we don’t see that happening anytime too soon,” Scannell said.

Another legendary music venue in the square, the Middle East, has also been silenced for months by COVID-19. There were already questions about the future of the establishment before the virus struck, with outlets reporting in January it was up for sale.

At the time, the Middle East indicated in a Facebook post that its ownership was looking to develop the property but added that the Middle East restaurant and nightclub “will remain running and open as usual.” Attempts to reach management were unsuccessful last week.

Nearby on Mass. Ave., Adam Penn, owner of Veggie Galaxy, a vegetarian diner whose menu includes omelets named for Cambridge streets and corned-beef seitan hash, lamented the COVID-19 challenges.

Before, the restaurant employed between 50 and 55 workers. It now has half that. Sales at the diner, which opened in 2011, are down about 40 percent from the norm, Penn said. Still, he considers the restaurant to be lucky given the circumstances; he believes that survival is attainable.

Penn said he has “zero interest” in having patrons dine inside until there is, at minimum, a vaccine. He wants his workers to be safe. The restaurant started a curbside pickup service in recent weeks and is contemplating doing delivery, something it has never done before. Unlike other nearby restaurants that have set up al fresco sections, Penn has opted to have no outdoor dining, saying the sidewalk in front of the diner would be better utilized for pick-up service.

“We’re not going to be particularly profitable during this time, but we’re going to get by,” said Penn.

Elsewhere on Mass. Ave., the backbone of Central Square, Joseph McCabe, co-owner of the Phoenix Landing, a soccer bar by day, dance club by night, gave a frank assessment of business these days: “It’s a big nightmare.” He estimated sales were down between 70 percent and 80 percent.

In recent months, owners of the bar have been paying for its operation out of their own personal accounts, he said. He thought the city could have done more to help the restaurant during the crisis. The establishment turns 25 years old on Sept. 17, which McCabe said promises to be a “most miserable birthday.” He acknowledged that closing Phoenix Landing is not out of the question in coming months.

“We’re just drained,” he said. “We’re in pure panic mode.”

A couple blocks away, Rodney’s Bookstore has a set date for when it will be the latest Central Square staple to leave its longtime home: Oct. 31. But unlike the others, owner Shaw Taylor says the shop’s departure would have happened pandemic or no: he hasn’t had a lease in 10 years and his landlord wants him out.

And perhaps unusual among the square’s businesses that have recently gone by the wayside, Taylor is relentlessly optimistic: He’ll reopen, he said, perhaps in Central, but definitely in Cambridge, which the shop has called home for 21 years.

Still, the specifics of when and where are among the open questions, given rental market uncertainties caused by the virus. He does not expect business to return to any semblance of normalcy until there is at least a vaccine.

Taylor is now spending his days packing books into boxes. There are tens of thousands of them. He plans on selling his wares right up until the end, when his shop’s departure will become another page in the fast-moving story of Central Square.

“Things change,” he said recently while seated in the children’s book section, “but it usually doesn’t change all at once like this.”


Danny McDonald can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @Danny__McDonald.

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