housands of people are expected to descend on Allston for the Boston Calling concert festival Memorial Day weekend, and for many businesses just across the river in Harvard Square, the festival will provide a boost.
The festival, held in Harvard University’s athletics complex in Lower Allston, is less than a mile away from the Red Line’s Harvard stop, the nearest MBTA station.
For Harvard Square businesses, the concert has become a capstone on an especially busy month, which already includes the annual Mayfair early in the month and Harvard’s commencement ceremonies.
That’s welcome news to Harvard Square retailers, which, like counterparts practically everywhere, have had to struggle through the pandemic and the loss of — especially for Harvard Square — students and international visitors.
A new annual highlight
For Harvard Square businesses, Boston Calling has become a prominent item on the calendar along with Mayfair, Oktoberfest and Head of the Charles, said Denise Jillson, Executive Director, Harvard Square Business Association. Boston Calling began a decade ago at City Hall Plaza and moved to Allston in 2017.
“They’ve added Boston Calling to that period of time when they make sure they have plenty of inventory and plenty of staff,” Jillson said of Harvard Square businesses.
Two aspects have worked in Harvard Square’s favor: the festival gives out wristbands that allow concertgoers to come and go throughout the day, and the location makes a walk from the Red Line the best bet for many people arriving.
“It’s a wonderful option for people who don’t necessarily want to be in the festival from beginning to end,” Jillson said.
Harvard Square is less reliant on office workers for foot traffic than neighborhoods like downtown Boston, and summer tourists make the square busier than it might normally be when Harvard’s between school years. The neighborhood’s retailers also hung on through the pandemic thanks in part to how many are independent, and therefore able to quickly make decisions on when to reopen or how.
“I’m not saying they’re not struggling. Everyone is struggling,” Jillson said. “But they’re hanging on.”
Other retailers are regularly opening, she added, giving a sense of optimism in the ever-changing neighborhood.
Retailers and restaurants were just starting to loosen or eliminate the last pandemic restrictions during Boston Calling a year ago, with this year’s festival offering a chance to look back on having made it through a harsh period for retailers.
The visibility effect
The wide range of time where people will be coming and going — over the festival’s three days — is critical, retailers said. In some cases, like restaurants, the benefit is immediate. In other cases, retailers enjoy a bump in visibility that helps them out down the road.
“The great thing about Boston Calling is everyone has their own plan,” said Patrick Lee, the owner of sibling restaurants Grafton Street and Russell House Tavern on John F. Kennedy Street and Hourly Oyster House the next street over on Dunster Street.
“Some people are coming later, some want to be there at the beginning and some leave and come back,” he said.
For Grafton Street, that’s helped some people discover or remember that the restaurant moved early last year from elsewhere in Harvard Square. For Forty Winks on JFK Street, the fact that it’s along the most direct route Boston Calling patrons take between the T and the concert venue can provide a boost.
Few are shopping for lingerie and sleepwear on their way to or from the concert, Forty Winks co-founder Rachel Wentworth said, but all the foot traffic can serve like great free advertising.
“People see us for the first time or they’re reminded of us,” Wentworth said. “We’ve heard people say, ‘There’s that store I’ve been meaning to go into.’”
It’s a similar story at Black Sheep Bagel Cafe, which shares a building with Forty Winks. Customers will often mention they didn’t realize that was where the cafe was located or ask about how long it’s been there, owner Shoshanah Ramirez said
The festival’s first acts go on at 1:45 p.m., also making the cafe a good stop for those looking for something to eat before heading in to catch early performances.
“At one point, we were the only place in Harvard Square to get a cup of coffee, so a lot of people discovered us that way,” said Ramirez, who opened Black Sheep Bagel Cafe five years ago with her husband, Manny.