126 Years and Still Smoking
“Waldo Peirce to the right—he’s always watching me. I could be at one end of the store or the other and I swear he’s always looking at me,” says MacDonald, the owner of Leavitt and Peirce. “Ah, that’s okay, he makes sure I keep the bar raised high.”
Amid a parade of empty tables, the loft serves as a seldom-used chess parlor, MacDonald reminisces about the 126-year-old store’s colorful past in Harvard Square, mourning the steady encroachment of national chains into what was once an enclave of mom-and-pop shops. Twiddling an empty Starbucks cup, he concedes that not all of the chains are unwelcome, but says that “when push comes to shove, it’s better to patronize the local businesses first.”
According to MacDonald, rising rents and the increasing popularity of online shopping—”a perfect storm of events”—has forced many independently-owned shops out of the Square.
In addition, a cultural shift away from smoking in recent years has forced MacDonald to diversify his store’s inventory, which now includes jewelry, shaving accessories, and board games. But he says he has been careful to select only merchandise that fits the store’s character—he refuses to carry Dungeons and Dragons, for instance—adding that “sometimes people lose their identity trying to be everything.”
MacDonald says that while the Square was once home to a host of “stores with character and stores with characters in it,” he now finds himself in small company. In the old days, “there were stores here you couldn’t get anywhere else,” he says. Now, “that base has been eroded basically because the stores in the Square have become very homogenous.”
“It’s sad,” MacDonald says. “I’m one of those older guys I used to look at when I was younger.”
A WHIFF OF HISTORY
Leavitt and Peirce has changed hands several times since its founding. In the 1950s, the Ehrlich family, renowned Boston tobacconists and pipe makers, took over the store but made few changes to its interior. Richard and William Ehrlich ‘22, ‘25, who operated the store as well as the family’s historic tobacco shop in Boston, hired MacDonald’s father to manage both stores, and MacDonald himself began running Leavitt and Peirce in the mid-1980s.
MacDonald, who used to deliver inventory to the store for his father, says the store used to be a “social epicenter.”
“I think in the old days, and it was literally a hangout. I mean, it was a shop, but it was also a place where people would gather and socialize,” MacDonald says. “I think society in general doesn’t have time to gather and socialize—people did it in the barber shop, they did it in the butcher shop. Now they plug in at Starbucks and barely have a conversation.”
According to MacDonald, the store used to be “a den of sin” where “you just see clouds of smoke and guys playing billiards.” For a time in the early 1900s, freshman were banned from the store, most likely at the University’s request.
“I don’t think the store would turn them away unless they had to,” MacDonald says. “It’s probably the university putting pressure on the store, saying, ‘You’re corrupting our young men, our fine young men!’”
He also notes that the store had a close connection with the athletic department and sold tickets for sporting events. The store’s walls are still lined with footballs from The Game dating back to 1900, sepia-tone photographs of sports teams, and antique rowing oars.
“It was like an outpost for Harvard athletics,” MacDonald says, although he notes that the University has never officially been affiliated with the store.
Former Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ‘68, who used to shop at Leavitt and Peirce as an undergraduate, remembers that his roommate, a member of the crew team, would refer to the store for rowing practice schedules.
“They would post the crew practice schedule in the window—there’s something the Internet has killed—but that’s the way you used to know when you were supposed to be down by the River,” Lewis says.
While such traditions are no longer in practice, Lewis says “the look and feel of the place is unchanged.”
“There would be, you know, a dozen of these big oversized specimen jars [filled with tobacco blends] and you’d just go through and smell them and talk to the salespeople,” he says. “You could buy in discrete quantities or you could buy a whole tin if you wanted. [It was] a little bit of an education in tobacco connoisseurship.”
Lewis, who says he dabbled in cigarettes and pipes in college, stopped smoking shortly thereafter. But he says he continues to shop at the store for non-tobacco products and recently purchased political playing cards as Christmas stocking stuffers.
THANK YOU FOR SMOKING
In addition to being one of the Square’s oldest establishments, it is now one of the few historic business landmarks that remain.
“[Leavitt and Peirce] never changes, even without people smoking inside.” says Robin Lapidus, director of marketing and events for the Harvard Square Business Association. “The minute you open that door, the smell of fine tobacco and cigars and violet gum and colognes just waft out onto the street.”
While MacDonald says the Square was once a place where you could find a convergence of people from all backgrounds—with “Nobel Prize-winning professors sitting next to a burned out hippie sitting next to a street person”—an onslaught of commercialization has led to a shift in the makeup of the Square’s customer base.
“Before the Square became so gentrified, it had a lot of shops that were natural for students but also for working people,” Lewis says. “Now so many of the places in the Square are not aimed at either of those audiences, but seem to be aimed at people from the suburbs who want to have lunch and go to a boutique.”
But Natalia A. Reed, a preceptor in the Slavic languages and literatures department who was a Harvard graduate student in the 1980s, says that Leavitt and Peirce has retained its character.
“It is exactly the same, with the same pipe, sign, and logo outside,” says Reed, a regular smoker. She adds that “it’s a great store, for smokers and non-smokers, because you can get stuff you cannot get anywhere else in a regular CVS,” noting the store’s unique lighters, pipes, and ashtrays.
Reed also applauds Leavitt and Peirce for its customer service—a quality that patrons praise and MacDonald prioritizes.
“If service isn’t your strength, you’re shooting yourself in the foot,” MacDonald says. “The service has to be the difference-maker. When it becomes your liability rather than your asset, then you’re giving your business to a Web site.”
Although Reed says she purchases tobacco online because of lower prices, she still buys cigarette filters—used for rolling tobacco—from Leavitt and Peirce.
Lapidus calls MacDonald a “great ambassador for Harvard Square,” adding that “he really knows everyone, and he’s one of the people that makes Harvard Square the village that it is.”
MacDonald says that this distinctive character is slowly disappearing because high rents make it difficult for local businesses to compete against national chains.
“Landlords get greedy, and they make it really impossible for a neat individually owned store to make a go of it,” MacDonald says. “So you get corporate chains that come in and are backed by corporate money, and they probably don’t even make a profit.”
He adds that even though he has a “fair lease arrangement” with Harvard, “it’s a challenge to survive in this day and age.”
Nevertheless, MacDonald says his store is “doing okay,” and that his revenue may be less affected by the economic slump than by daily weather conditions and tourism in the Square. He also notes that in recent years, Square landlords have started taking into account the long-term diversity of the community when choosing tenants, rather than simply looking for the biggest profit.
Reed says that shoppers in the Square should patronize Leavitt and Peirce—”an old place, a colorful place”—even if they do not smoke.
“We need that store,” Reed says. “I would be heartbroken if they go out of business. This is one store that still has the old spirit in it.”