A sense of coolness and quiet welcomes you as you step into the store and divest yourself of the summer heat, leaving the bustle of the street behind you. Although you are stepping into a tobacconist's shop that has been in existence for 123 years, there are no intriguing smells of exotic tobacco lingering in the air. Rather, you smell the aroma of something slightly candyish. Perhaps, one of the central wooden tables plied with mounds of fancy soaps explains this olfactory non sequitur.
I have read old newspaper articles alluding to the smells of the store's wooden floor mixed with those of tobaccos. The floor is now covered with a black and white checkered linoleum. These past descriptions have made me realize that I cannot muster any recollection of the store in terms of its smell. I have entered it before, many times, but without really paying attention to the smell of the place and am at a loss as to being able to define its olfactory identity. This time, I try to find out what its particular aroma is. I am not even certain whether past customers were alluding to the smell of tobacco as found in the bins or to the tobacco that used to be smoked by customers whiling their time away in this temple of the good life, enjoying themselves in its many nooks and crannies. There used to be a tobacco room at the back of the store. Was it predominantly a smoky smell or a sweet one that pervaded the premises?
This place, which has remained in the same location since 1883, is the famous, quaint, and atemporal abode called Leavitt & Peirce. It was originally established in Harvard Square right across from the yard as a branch of the tobacconist Ehrlich, itself the oldest Boston tobacconist, founded in 1868.
I call it a temple because it becomes obvious as you study the place, read reviews of it, and discover its lore that Leavitt & Peirce used to be an unoffical temple dedicated to manhood, and in particular, to the Harvard brand of manliness. It must have constituted one of the most cherished rituals of Harvard men to bond within its premises with friends over pipes and cigars while playing in the pool room doubling as a tobacco room at the back of the store. The painter Waldo Pierce admitted to spending most of his time in this popular haunt, smoking and playing away while preoccupying himself as little as possible with the academic curriculum. This habit of his almost prevented him from graduating. He has left a doggerel dedicated to Leavitt & Peirce that is now buried somewhere in the store amidst the dozens of frames that decorate it. I attempted to locate it, as I read it is hanging somewhere in the shop, but the young man I asked was not certain as to its whereabouts and after a while started looking pained that he could not be more helpful. So, we left it at that.
In 1958, a little book was issued bearing the title, 75 aromatic years of Leavitt & Peirce in the recollections of 31 Harvard men, 1883-1958. Did you say "aromatic"? I plan then to go read it in the library. In the summary, I learn that John Updike is one of the 31 Harvard men reminiscing about the so-called aromatic years spent at Leavitt & Peirce and that his contribution constitutes one of his earliest known writings. I am very much intrigued by the subjective accent put on a place and its smell in general and moreover, here, on the experience of smoking seen as a primarily fragrant one when smoking is now mostly presented in terms of the deleterious and unpleasant stinking impact it has.
Leavitt & Peirce also sells board games, in particular chess games. This leads me to another part of the store that offers a faint mystical aura, the loft. The stairs leading up to the loft are closed with a rope nowadays but the young man with the pained look on his face has invited me to go upstairs in recognition of my sincere interest for the historicity of the place. There, you can still find a single row of small wooden chess tables on which retro green glass desk lamps continue throwing their circles of light. It is now quiet and empty; only muffled sounds coming up from the store below stir its respose.The floor boards creak a little as I walk past the tables and distinguish antique pictures of young men in the shadowy light posing in their baseball or football uniforms, looking at an invisible camera from the not-so-distant shores of the end of the 19th century and early 20th century. 1898, 1910,...perhaps the young men on the last picture were to experience directly the impact of WWI? For now, they are still living in a pre-WWI world, hoping for a future that will be kind to them as well as to humanity in general, unaware of the fact that they will come to be known as the lost generation.
People used to sit in the loft playing chess and smoking. The city of Cambridge had made an exception for Leavitt & Peirce because the ban on public smoking would so obviously hurt their business. And so, smoking was allowed in the store. An old metallic ashtray like the kind you see in old movie theaters is still screwed onto the wall. After taking a few pictures, as I go down the stairs, back to the store, I spy a striking picture of a gathering of hundreds of freshmen dressed in dark jackets assembled for a "smoker" in 1924. This is a ritual one could not imagine witnessing today in Annenberg Hall, not the least because there would have to be hundreds of young women disrupting the concentrated atmosphere of a man's club. Then, you could overtly express unabashed manliness through cigar smoking and male-only presence on Harvard grounds. This ideal, today, appears almost charming in its quaintness and naïveté.
Next, the perfume corner (to be continued).
Next time, I will also upload some of the pictures I snapped.
Photo Mimi Froufrou. The plaque features a poem by Mark A. Dewolfe Howe Class of 1887
Salute to Leavitt & Peirce
Narrowly parted from the yard
A little college long has stood
No flunkster ever yet was barred
From gaining all he might of good
About a brand of special knowledge
Untaught within the larger college
To know a good pipe when he tried it
And lips and teeth and breath had plied it
To know besides the weed that burned
The most rewardingly of all
And spread its cloud of incense where
Had hitherto hung only care
O little ancient shop and college
Still teach your priceless brand of knowledge
Proving all minor ills surmountable
Teach on through years and years uncountable