By  on August 21, 2008

Cambridge, Mass., sits just across the Charles River from Boston, yet this city of about 100,000 people — home to Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology — has a rhythm unlike its neighbor’s urban churn.

An intellectual town with an earthy, liberal bent, Cambridge has as many bookstores as fashion retailers. People walk and bike in all seasons, pairing loose, bohemian garb with backpacks and comfort shoes. Grocers here sold wheat germ in bulk decades before Whole Foods arrived. In 2006, Cambridge City Hall issued the first same-sex marriage licenses in America.

“I’ve seen more ‘Eve Was Framed’ bumper stickers and posters counting down [President George W.] Bush’s last days here than anywhere,” says James Burnett, editor of Boston magazine and a Cambridge resident. “At the end of the day, though, there is also a fair amount of money here, so these are hippies with Champagne tastes.”

Case in point: Harvard Square fine jeweler Baak Gallery may sell hefty diamonds, but promotes them as conflict-free from Canada.

People travel from across the globe to study here, with an estimated 13,200 students in Cambridge driving the economy with the money they spend and jobs they create.

Harvard and MIT are the city’s biggest employers, according to the Cambridge Chamber of Commerce, creating a stable employment base that’s helped cushion the city against recession.

Additionally, the weak dollar has boosted European tourism and sales, said several shop owners.

In personal dress, students range from style-agnostic to J. Crew prep to sophisticated international appeal. The Harvard Business School set — particularly after collecting a couple of years of postgrad salary — is known to be “comfortable with fashion,” said retailers.

As for the undergrads, boutique owners agree a true bonanza comes during the semiannual parents’ weekends, when family shopping visits flourish.

Cambridge Local First, a business advocacy organization, has more than 250 members promoting local shopping through door decals and neighborhood events. When an Abercrombie & Fitch opened in Harvard Square in the late Nineties, there was much hand-wringing over a feared “mall-ization” of the square. Abercrombie eventually closed after a brief run.

Cambridge’s loose organization into “Squares” — which are essentially mini communities tucked around separate commercial hubs — gives the city a handful of distinct neighborhoods. The major squares — Porter, Central, Kendall and Harvard — are located along the axis of the Red Line T line, but there are other squares as well.

Each has its own identity: Gritty Central Square is famous for Middle Eastern and other music clubs; Porter Square has bookstores, lounges and small ethnic restaurants and serves as unofficial campus for Lesley University; Inman Square has become a draw for the young married-with-children set with its upscale toy shops, children’s wear boutiques and brunch spots, and Kendall Square, near MIT, has added new glamour (and the nickname Genetown) thanks to the booming biotech sector, which ushered in thousands of square feet of new lab space, luxury condos and development of a new mixed-use transit hub, North Point.

Governor Deval Patrick’s life sciences initiative, signed into law in June, will invest $1 billion over a decade to foster start-ups. No doubt the ripple effect will help established players like Amgen, Genzyme, Wyeth Research, Biogen IDEC and others calling Cambridge home.

But the hub of Cambridge remains Harvard Square, which throngs with suburban high school kids and tourists in the months when students aren’t in session. Retail anchors there include the Harvard Coop, a massive student emporium selling books and household goods; the Curious George bookstore; urban mall The Garage; esoteric beauty pharmacy Colonial Drug, and The Tannery, a family footwear and jeanswear store that spun off two fashionable subbrands in recent years: Concept Shoes and Curated by The Tannery.

In September, Cambridge native Jessica Good will open Passport, a travel-inspired apparel and accessories boutique in Harvard Square. She’ll carry labels like White + Warren cashmere and LnA T-shirts, figuring that with a flow of students, tech entrepreneurs, researchers and academics passing through there’s a need for packable, versatile clothing and a decent roller bag. (Statistics favor her proposition — 26 percent of Cambridge residents in 2000 were foreign-born, according to U.S. Census data.)

“I’ve always loved about Cambridge that you can literally walk down the street and not hear one word of English,” Good said. “And the fashion scene is as varied. There will be guys with 12-inch Mohawks walking next to professors in tweed.”

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