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Harvard Square Businesses Welcome the Return of Students

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As students trickle back into Cambridge for the spring semester, Harvard Square business owners said they are hoping to see sales pick back up after a challenging year and quiet winter break.

When students left campus in November for winter break, many business owners said they feared not being able to survive into the spring. Some tried to negotiate rental costs with their landlords, while others, including Café Pamplona and Wellbridge Athletic Club, permanently closed in the months prior.

Alex W. Meriwether, general manager of the Harvard Book Store, said it has been a “difficult year” for the independent bookstore.

“We’ve evolved to meet with the challenges of the pandemic, but certainly expenses are up, sales are down, and everything is uncertain,” he said.

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Meriwether added that in a typical year, a large portion of the store’s revenue comes from in-person book signings and author talks. During the pandemic, these events have been hosted virtually with much less success.

Meriwether noted that students are “certainly” an important part of the book store’s customer base.

Playa Bowls owner Dana S. Nentin said opening the store last August was a “challenge,” but she remains hopeful that business will pick up with more students in the area.

“We’re excited to have students back. We’ve definitely seen more foot traffic in the Square,” she said. “[We’re] hopeful that their return will have a significant, positive impact on our business for this semester.”

To keep business afloat during the pandemic, some stores have implemented loyalty programs, while others have tried to increase brand awareness by collaborating with student ambassadors.

At Harvard Book Store, customers can now join a Frequent Buyer Loyalty Program, which provides discounts and access to special sales for customers. The bookstore has also tried to increase its online presence in hopes of connecting with its customers.

“We’ve been working to create a digital experience of an independent bookstore on our website,” Meriwether said.

Nestin said she has been working with Harvard student brand ambassadors to ramp up Playa Bowls’ campus presence and advertise special promotions for Wellness Days — five days of break scattered throughout the spring semester for undergraduates.

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Kung Fu Tea shift manager Tianquan Li said the store — which opened in January 2020 — has been holding “happy hours and events” to appeal to students.

Despite their proximity, some students expressed concerns about the potential health risks and financial burden posed by frequenting Square businesses.

Gene H. Lee ’24, who is living on campus this semester, said measures to respect the safety of others should include “not going out too often.”

Likewise, Sherry X. Liu ’24, who is living off-campus in Cambridge, said she shops at Harvard Square businesses “significantly less often” than last semester.

“I think living off-campus makes it so you are trying to be more financially responsible,” she said. “And I know Covid-19 has gotten a lot worse in general in the U.S.”

Amanda L. Stickels ’24, who is also living off-campus in Cambridge, said she “definitely went out more” last semester compared to this semester, when she is not relying on Harvard University Dining Services for meals.

“I think it’s just a matter of being able to cook the food that we want to, other than being at the mercy of HUDS,” she added.

—Staff writer Hannah J. Martinez contributed reporting.

—Staff writer Tracy Jiang can be reached at tracy.jiang@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @_tracyjiang_.

—Staff writer Davin W. Shi can be reached at davin.shi@thecrimson.com.

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