Thursday, July 31, 2008

Farewell to some bits of olde Cambridge

We sent off one of our departing colleagues in style yesterday, taking him to the finest cuisine in Cambridge: the MIT Food Trucks. These institutions are various privately run trucks serving hot foods, from around the world, to long lines of students. While private, the trucks are sanctioned: not only do they have specially reserved parking spots but they also are listed in the MIT Food Service website.

However, first we had to find them. Their previous locale is now a major hole in the ground, to be filled in with the new Koch Cancer Institute (or some such name). With the MIT web site's help, we were able to find the new location.

During the year I (and others) have discovered two other institutions which were not so lucky.

It was a bit of a shock one day to discover the Quantum Books location cleared out, though not much after recollection. Quantum was a bookstore specializing in technical books -- particularly computing books. It was a handy place to browse such books before investing; I've spent far too much on books that looked good but were awful. The not so much shock was on thinking about it: not only was Quantum getting hammered by the usual Amazon internet tide, but they were in a perfectly awful location. While there might be a lot of commuter traffic, otherwise they were in a nearly retail-free zone that is one of the many crimes against urban design inflicted on Kendall Square in the 60's/70's. They tried to have a children's section and other experiments, but it was hard to see much hope of success. Quantum isn't kaput, but has gone to a nearly totally Internet model, but unless their fans are super-loyal, it's hard to see that lasting long.

Cambridge was once a center of conventional industry. For example, a huge fraction (I forget the amount; it's on a plaque in the park on Sidney Street) of the undersea telegraph cable used in WW2 was created in Cambridge. But fewer and fewer remain. Even in my short tenure at least 2 candy factories have closed, leaving only one left (tootsie rolls!). A prominent paint company moved out a few years ago. Sometimes it's hard to tell what's still active & what is only an empty shell. But not in this case.

There will be no more "goo goo g'joob" in Cambridge; Siegal egg company has not only cleared out but been cleared out -- the building is gone. A distributor of eggs, they were across the street from one MLNM building and adjacent to Alkermes. Indeed, it was that proximity to MLNM that forced me to notice them: their egg trucks would sometimes block Albany Street while backing into the loading dock, trapping the MLNM shuttle van (always with me late for a meeting!). I think the demolition was part of the adjacent MIT dorm construction, but perhaps a new biotech building will go in. By chance, the Google street view catches the building being prepared for demolition.

Will some future writer remark wistfully on the disappearance of biotech buildings from Cambridge? It's difficult to imagine -- but who a century ago could have imagined Cambridge getting out of the business of supplying everyday things.


Anonymous said...

I am mourning the loss of Quantum Books. I spent many Saturdays there browsing for programming, database, and statistics books.

But as you say, they didn't get much foot traffic. The MIT Coop has a much better location and probably carries everything Quantum Books had in stock, except not in such a concentrated form.

Anonymous said...

Your entry is particularly interesting with the news of both Vertex and Biogen shopping to move their operations out of Cambridge.