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From the Metro staff at The Boston Globe

Harvard Square newsstand sold the magazine that started a revolution

December 30, 2008 01:45 PM Email| Comments (25)| Text size +

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(Essdras Suarez/Globe Staff)

The city is trying to save the venerable Out of Town News newsstand.

By Martin Finucane, Globe Staff

A young man buys a magazine at the Out of Town News newsstand in Cambridge's Harvard Square. He shows it to a friend. It could have happened at any time over the past five decades at the newsstand in the busy crossroads.


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(Stan Veit/Digibarn Computer Museum


But the two young men were Paul Allen and Bill Gates, the co-founders of Microsoft. And the magazine was the January 1975 issue of Popular Electronics where they read about a primitive personal computer -- and it dawned upon them that someday a computer would be in every home and on every desk.

"I can still remember grabbing the Popular Electronics as if it was yesterday," Allen, who made the fateful purchase, said last week in a statement.

It's the stuff of which legends are made. It's also another episode in the rich history of the newsstand, which is facing an uncertain future. Hudson News of East Rutherford, N.J., has told the city that it does not plan to renew its lease Jan. 31, citing a diminished demand for printed news, the Globe reported last month. The city is seeking new vendors who can make a newsstand work on the site.

The possible demise of Out of Town News, which has been in business since 1955 and is on the National Register of Historic Places, has shocked and dismayed some people. Other notable newsstand visitors have included John Kenneth Galbraith, who bought a copy of Le Monde there every day; Julia Child, who searched for obscure Italian and German cooking magazines; and Robert Frost, who stopped by to get directions to a reading.

The city, which owns the property at the center of the square, is seeking proposals by Jan. 8, and 11 different entities had shown interest by last week, said City Councilor Brian Murphy.

"It may be a different vendor, but I think we will be able to maintain its iconic stature," said Murphy, who lives in Harvard Square.

Sheldon Cohen, who founded the newsstand in 1955 and sold it to Hudson in 1994, said he may be among the bidders. He said times have changed from when he shipped in newspapers by air, selling up to 600 London papers on Sundays and 1,500 Irish papers a week.

He said he was developing some new ideas to make the newsstand viable in the 21st century. "It would be a newsstand, but I have a new vision," he said, declining to divulge any details.

Gates has previously described the purchase of the magazine by Allen in Harvard Square as a pivotal point. "As we read excitedly about the first truly personal computer, Paul and I didn't know exactly how it would be used, but we were sure it would change us and the world of computing. We were right. The personal-computer revolution happened and it has affected millions of lives," Gates wrote in a 1995 Newsweek essay.

It wasn't clear, however, exactly where Allen bought the magazine. Allen confirmed last week that he bought the magazine at Out of Town News, his spokesman said.

"It's just interesting, one of those things. A small event that day obviously changed a lot of things," said Allen spokesman David Postman. "He always remembers buying the magazine that day and seeing the computer on the cover ... And you can imagine what went through his head."

Allen's recollection sets up a painful irony. The computers that Allen and Gates helped to make ubiquitous are now reducing the demand for news on printed paper, endangering the newsstand where it all began just thee decades ago.

It might have been better for the newsstand if Sheldon Cohen had said to Allen, "Sorry, young man, this magazine is just not for you," and offered him Sports Illustrated instead.

25 comments so far...
  1. Perhaps the city of Cambridge would do well to block all wifi access around Harvard Square, and give the next proprietors of this venerable institution a fighting chance to re-instill the satisfaction and allure that accompanies the tangibility of moveable print.

    The crackle of crisp pages being shifted from right to left and often back again, the heft and silky caress of glossy magazine gravid with with sensual photos, the unmistakable inky odor of the hometown newspaper that wafts up to your face as you snap it open- these experiences are priceless, yet thanks to places like Out of Town News, they can and should continue to be bought, savored, and preserved.

    Posted by Michael J. Curtiss December 30, 08 02:22 PM
  1. I used to hang out there back in the early 70's and the man who ran the stand then always looked out for the street kids that made Harvard Square their home.

    Posted by Pattie Howard December 30, 08 02:23 PM
  1. The crackle of crisp pages being shifted from right to left and often back again, the heft and silky caress of glossy magazine gravid with with sensual photos, the unmistakable inky odor of the hometown newspaper that wafts up to your face as you snap it open- these experiences are priceless, yet thanks to places like Out of Town News, they can and should continue to be bought, savored, and preserved.
    ~~~~~~~~~~~~
    Michael J. Curtiss - how vivid your words are, instantly bringing up visuals and audibles in your mind's eye and ear of a situation that just cannot happen when you're reading words off a bright white screen, be it a cell phone, Blackberry, or laptop.

    While the medium for getting news and information may have changed, the historical value of what once was (and hopefully, still is) should remain. I do hope that Sheldon Cohen's ideas to bring the Out of Town News into the 21st century is a good one and revives that little patch of history.

    Posted by Linda December 30, 08 03:39 PM
  1. Let's not romanticize this with ridiculous invocations of a young Paul Allen and Bill Gates. OOTN is in the middle of a shoddy quasi-island in the heart of a moribund historic district. It's red-lit (!) interior is poorly-maintained and utterly uninviting, the stock declining in terms of the breadth of offerings. I've always wondered if it served as a front for other activity. The surrounding Pit is disgraceful, thronged with young, hostile marginals, pan-handlers, flyer-distributors etc. I hope the city of Cambridge uses this opportunity to revitalize a valuable public space with a more aesthetically appealing and publicly-inviting alternative.

    Posted by Jen December 30, 08 03:48 PM
  1. Just a matter of time. Harvard square is gone, what is left? Charlies kitchen, Hong Kong, thats about it.

    Posted by greaseslinger23 December 30, 08 04:11 PM
  1. I used to buy the sunday Advertiser, Herald, Globe papers there late on Saturday nights, it was a fun place to browse the papers from far away. The city should make sure that they get to keep the name Out of Town News, although the name is somewhat dated with the internet and all it is still a local Icon of a name, like SS Pierce or NECCo, the name should be kept by the city for any new tenents.

    Posted by Marty December 30, 08 04:13 PM
  1. Jen: Do you have a soul? This is what makes Harvard Sqaure so special. Places like Out of Town News--If you know anything about the Pit--I actually have a lot of friends who hung out in the Pit--and these "young, hostile marginals, pan-handlers, flyer-distributors etc" are actually people who make Harvard Square authentic. You and your big words--you are sounding a lot like the Pony-Tailed Harvard guy in "Good Will Huntng." The Tasty is gone--and Corporate America has moved in. Why Jen? Your words are so harsh. Do you really need another place to get your Starbucks no-whip latte?

    Posted by kidfresh December 30, 08 04:34 PM
  1. Harvard Sq. as I learned it, has mostly been gone since they built the T Extension to Alewife. I miss Bailey's and Cardell's. But then we pine for simpler days. I'm sure our parents thought it went downhill since their day. Leavitt and Pearce, Bob Slate's, Harvard Book Store, and Nini's Corner are still there. When Harvard moves out then it'll really change. :-)

    Posted by BostonGrant December 30, 08 04:55 PM
  1. I worked near the SQ from '78 until 88. Harvard SQ no longer exists. Almost all the locals have been chased out by higher rents charged by the University and other property owners. What's left for the most part is a hodge podge of national and regional banks plus national chains. The diversity is gone as is the look and feel that went with the place. (Yes, there are exceptions). It's become just another place in the Boston metro area. Sad.

    Posted by H2OTownBob December 30, 08 05:16 PM
  1. Maybe Abercrombie and Fitch can buy it and try to make a comeback - that would be swell.

    Posted by ghunt December 30, 08 05:20 PM
  1. @kidfresh - my observation is a dispassionate (and I believe) correct one borne of a long affiliation with Harvard/Cambridge as a student and now longtime resident. It's exceptionally unfortunate that you equate authenticity with being downtrodden and disaffected. The Starbucks latte-drinking trope doesn't work anymore by the way - not that I am a fan of any of that chain's stores in H2.

    Posted by Jen December 30, 08 05:59 PM
  1. Authenticity was not equated with being downtrodden and disaffected. It was equated with what it is--authentic. An authentic small business that did not shovel its cash to the other side of the continent was mentioned, for example. The Starbucks "trope" is not a trope, it's a reality. Saying it "doesn't work" is tautology, a trope that cannot work.

    Incidentally, why don't Bill and Paul simply buy the newsstand with their pocket change?

    Posted by jk December 30, 08 06:40 PM
  1. hmmm, maybe Paul Allen and Bill Gates can look in their sofa cushions and find some cash to save Out of Town News.

    Posted by H2OTownTeddyBallgame December 30, 08 06:46 PM
  1. Jefferson, Madison. Hamilton, Franklin, Adams, et al.....

    ...young, hostile, marginal, pan-handling, flyer-distributors. Each and every one of them.

    God bless Harvard Square. And God bless young, hostile, marginal, pan-handling, flyer-distributors.

    Posted by heyduke December 30, 08 07:22 PM
  1. I have to agree with Jen. As someone who actually grew up in Cambridge, went to high school with chuckleheads Matt Damon and Ben Affleck (the two characters who made Good Will Hunting), and went to Harvard and now living in Cambridge, I think I can say a thing or two about the 'pit'. And, I have to say that the 'pit' sorely needs a facelift. Unless OOTN turns into a coffee shop (with WiFi) or a bookstore (Borders), it cannot be viable. The shady characters around the 'pit' are scary to say the least, and with development of the surrounding environment, the 'pit' needs to be upgraded as well.

    Posted by botontopdog December 30, 08 08:16 PM
  1. America rocks, so do the capitalist, greedy property owners that shape our world. I can't wait to open my new macbook and drink lattes all day, reading the WSJ online and researching a new BMW 7 series lease.
    Screw nostalgia, you cambridge hippies. go to work and get your cambridge-parking-sticker plastered volvo out of my way.

    Posted by gosachems92 December 30, 08 08:36 PM
  1. Turn it into an Apple Store and be done with it!

    Posted by victormeldrew December 30, 08 09:13 PM
  1. sigh! George's Folly... gone. The Lodge...Gone. Bailey's....Gone. The Wursthaus, King's, Catch a Falling Star, Oxford Ale House, Out of Town....

    I guess we'll judge our age by our landmarks, and apparently, I don't belong in H2 in the 21st cenrury

    Posted by Boo MacKenzie December 30, 08 09:27 PM
  1. yea the space on the corner (watch store recently closed) will surely become a mac store.

    Posted by gosachems92 December 30, 08 09:46 PM
  1. Maybe Harvard could buy it, as well as the old horse and buggy carriages, and we could harken back to an old day.....seriously, things have to move forward, the usefulness of getting your news from papers is past. Move forward move on, relevancy is more important than the opinions of the newspaper editor. We are seeing the demise of the arrogant leftist newspeople, maybe this will harken in a new era of objectivity!!!???

    Posted by freepress December 30, 08 09:55 PM
  1. What a trumped up joke. We are giving credit to a newsstand for having a magazine. Minus that, the PC revolution it never happens... Really? You've been watching too many quantum leap re-runs.

    Even worse, the "good old days" suggestions. Block all wi-fi????
    The profound absurdity of creating a no technology zone to allegedly save a doomed medium is so perfectly Cambridge elite I shouldn't be shocked. Cambridge always been changing. Your romantic notions are nothing more than you pushing your history on us as "better". Like the place so much should've shopped there more..

    Posted by Lembo December 30, 08 09:59 PM
  1. Maybe Harvard could buy it, as well as the old horse and buggy carriages, and we could harken back to an old day.....seriously, things have to move forward, the usefulness of getting your news from papers is past. Move forward move on, relevancy is more important than the opinions of the newspaper editor. We are seeing the demise of the arrogant leftist newspeople, maybe this will harken in a new era of objectivity!!!???

    Posted by freepress December 30, 08 10:01 PM
  1. i would really miss out of town news, but times do change. i don't buy print newspapers much, and i like reading on the computer more. maybe they should turn the place into an internet cafe...

    Posted by Thomas December 30, 08 11:15 PM
  1. I so hope Out of Town News survives and would love to see Sheldon Cohen back at the helm. I recall his brother Fred usually in the news stand. Such a nice guy. There is nothing like having a good magazine or newpaper from another part of the globe. Just stuff it in your coat pocket or bag and off you go. Can't do that with a laptop and certainly don't want to be reading off a hand held device, not me anyway. Since Cambridge is the property owner, I trust they will do the right thing.

    Posted by marie s. December 31, 08 12:28 AM
  1. There was a time in the mid 1980's when out of town news was the only place where you can get the Sunday Globe real estate classified on Saturday afternoon. Talk about a time when print media had power. The few of us who knew this always got a head start on the week's new real estate listings and tried to scoop up the good ones before the paper hit the newsstands at 2:00 AM. Different era for sure.

    Posted by sed December 31, 08 01:29 AM
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