Only the hippest hang, shop and eat at one of New England’s biggest attractions: The Garage.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Welcome to The Garage — clumped brick buildings with a labyrinthine layout, few signs and a dim, burnt orange-tiled interior that feels downright subterranean. Not to traditional shoppers’ taste, but it’s a pure teen aphrodisiac.

An "anti-mall" before Southern California’s Shaheen Sadeghi dreamed up The Lab, the entry to The Garage might as well read: Come, ye disenfranchised teen, ye goth-club teen or ye suburbanite wanting desperately to be either and yet making it home in time for dinner.

The Harvard Square restaurant and retail complex started life in 1860 to stable horses that pulled trolley cars. In 1972, developers merged the space with two neighboring garages and scooped out the interior to make way for about 30 small businesses.

Now, some of the most imaginative local retailers are parked in The Garage, selling everything from rainbow-striped shoelaces to Paul Frank pajamas. Developers left the wide, bricked car ramps intact, giving space for teens to congregate in small clusters, flirt and window shop.

Despite the retail mix’s goth-punk leanings, there’s no one type of teen present: Girls come in with hair extensions and J.Lo sweats, some wear vintagey fur-trimmed coats with rolled-up jeans and platform shoes, and others wear ponytails, Puma shoes and candy-striped sweaters.

The Garage is "an authentic place; it’s not neat and clean like a mall, which is kind of fabricated," said property manager Jon DiGiovanni, who also serves as president of the Harvard Square Business Association. "The Garage has grown over decades and Harvard Square over a couple of centuries. That’s what makes both really appealing."

The complex also has what every growing teen requires: cheap eats galore. There’s ice cream, pizza, taco restaurants and, at Tokyo pop-store Chibi Toys, all forms of Japanese junk food along with Hello Kitty, Pokemon and small, kitschy toys.

When Massachusetts repealed its law prohibiting tattoo parlors a few years ago, The Garage was the first to have a shop, Chameleon. Now, the company’s windows are papered with astrological designs and it does a swift business not only in actual tattoos but also in semipermanent henna body art.DiGiovanni understands the importance of attracting creative, intuitive merchants and their complementary businesses as tenants. The Garage’s entire third floor, for example, houses an English-language school, drawing students from all over the world for four-week sessions. It provides a captive audience and constant foot traffic within the complex.

DiGiovanni also pays a great deal of attention to The Garage’s mix, contending synergies between tenants provide a large part of the complex’s success. The square, rimmed by the Harvard University campus, has been feast or famine for teen retailers. A PacSun store, for example, shuttered after several years of trying to make the location work. However, in The Garage, regional chain Blades, Boards & Skate has thrived, providing a mix of footwear, equipment and apparel.

When a 1,300-square-foot, ground-level space recently became available, DiGiovanni asked applicants to address how the business would add to the existing tenant mix and to propose a monthly rent based on sales projections. He didn’t choose the highest bidder, which was cell phone company Nextel.

"We consciously went for a local, Mexican restaurant willing to stay open late because we thought fast, affordable Mexican food was underserved in the neighborhood," he said.

The Real Taco restaurant, paved in a blaze of red, orange, purple and yellow glass tile, endeared itself immediately by offering any menu item plus a drink and chips-and-salsa for a flat $5.

"It was a good deal for students, young people, anyone who wanted to try my food," said owner Joel Espinosa, who added that he keeps most items priced $3 to $6 and portions generous.

There’s no liquor license, but drinks nevertheless have a measure of sophistication: Mexican-style hot chocolate, nonalcoholic sangria and a sweet rice-and-walnuts drink called horchata. Starting this spring, the restaurant will stay open an hour later, until 3 a.m., Thursday through Friday, with free chips and salsa for the post-club, late-night crowd.

The Garage’s mezzanine level holds Hootenanny, a gals-and-guys clothing shop with rockabilly window mannequins and a bulletin board layered with concert flyers, items for sale, notices about roommates wanted or pets for adoption. Ironically, for preppy dressers, the store stocks pink-and-black designs from British designer Fred Perry, as well as loads of Paul Frank and low-rise Dickies. The occasional goth-glam look — a safety-pinned jacket or a Cruella de Ville-esque fake-fur duster from Serious — rounds out the assortment. There are close to 200 styles of shoes, ranging from Mary Jane to tricky stilettos from Jante.The diversity, including the store’s wide range of merchandise from Doc Martens to undies, helps teens "define their style a little bit more,"said Hootenanny store manager Mandy Taylor.

Upstairs, Hootenanny’s parent company, Newbury Comics, has been The Garage’s music-and-miscellany anchor for 20 years. Manager Graham O’Connor said the store attracts teens by playing hip-hop albums whole, rather than sticking to the few cleaned-up singles played on the radio.

"The most important thing we can do is in-store play," O’Connor said. "Playing things that are new and cutting-edged, not hammering the classics."

While heavy on hip-hop, the store also plays Emo, an off-shoot of the punk scene that couples a thrashing sound with emotional lyrics. Bands like Jimmy Eat World and Dashboard Confessional are current favorites. With CD sales on the wane due to downloading, Newbury Comics has beefed up its selection of under-$20 novelties, including T-shirts, gag gifts, notebooks, colorful tights and small purses. The average ticket is $15 to $20, said O’Connor, so the store tries to make sure teens can leave with a couple of items for their money, such as the "Wicked Cheap CDs" department.

Items featuring Emily Strange, a skinny, acid-tongued little girl who stars in her own goth picture books, have been flying off the shelves, O’Connor said.

At the center of the complex is The Jewelry Gallery, which guards its edgy reputation by offering all manner of body piercing, 300 pairs of ear-stretchers and enough studded belts to make Sid Vicious preen. On the weekends, the tiny store will do as many as 150 piercings, employee Julie Starr said. Ear-stretching — a process by which the pierced hole is stretched by wearing plugs of increasingly wider gauge — has become popular, because unlike piercing, it doesn’t require parental permission, Starr said.

The store offers small-gauge starter sets for $24, as well as intricate bone, wood, amber and silver ones for as much as $400. But Starr said it’s the staff’s willingness to give advice on how to stretch ears safely that draws a lot of teens to linger in the store, asking questions and making other small purchases.The store’s assortment reflects those who would prefer to dabble rather than commit to something permanent. There are spring-loaded hoop earrings that can be attached to lip, nose or navel without piercing. The store also stocks temporary tattoos, $4 rings made from Fimo clay, necklaces with Celtic talismans, candle holders and other items teens give each other as gifts.

To access this article, click here to subscribe or to log in.

load comments
blog comments powered by Disqus