Harvard Square newsstand sold the magazine that started a revolution

Martin Finucane – The Boston Globe

Copyright The Boston Globe
A young man buys a magazine at the Out of Town News newsstand in Cambridge’s Harvard Square. He shows it to a friend. It could have happened at any time over the past five decades at the newsstand in the busy crossroads.
But the two young men were Paul Allen and Bill Gates, the co-founders of Microsoft. And the magazine was the January 1975 issue of Popular Electronics where they read about a primitive personal computer — and it dawned upon them that someday a computer would be in every home and on every desk.
“I can still remember grabbing the Popular Electronics as if it was yesterday,” Allen, who made the fateful purchase, said last week in a statement.
It’s the stuff of which legends are made. It’s also another episode in the rich history of the newsstand, which is facing an uncertain future. Hudson News of East Rutherford, N.J., has told the city that it does not plan to renew its lease Jan. 31, citing a diminished demand for printed news, the Globe reported last month. The city is seeking new vendors who can make a newsstand work on the site.
The possible demise of Out of Town News, which has been in business since 1955 and is on the National Register of Historic Places, has shocked and dismayed some people. Other notable newsstand visitors have included John Kenneth Galbraith, who bought a copy of Le Monde there every day; Julia Child, who searched for obscure Italian and German cooking magazines; and Robert Frost, who stopped by to get directions to a reading.
The city, which owns the property at the center of the square, is seeking proposals by Jan. 8, and 11 different entities had shown interest by last week, said City Councilor Brian Murphy.
“It may be a different vendor, but I think we will be able to maintain its iconic stature,” said Murphy, who lives in Harvard Square.
Sheldon Cohen, who founded the newsstand in 1955 and sold it to Hudson in 1994, said he may be among the bidders. He said times have changed from when he shipped in newspapers by air, selling up to 600 London papers on Sundays and 1,500 Irish papers a week.
He said he was developing some new ideas to make the newsstand viable in the 21st century. “It would be a newsstand, but I have a new vision,” he said, declining to divulge any details.
Gates has previously described the purchase of the magazine by Allen in Harvard Square as a pivotal point. “As we read excitedly about the first truly personal computer, Paul and I didn’t know exactly how it would be used, but we were sure it would change us and the world of computing. We were right. The personal-computer revolution happened and it has affected millions of lives,” Gates wrote in a 1995 Newsweek essay.
It wasn’t clear, however, exactly where Allen bought the magazine. Allen confirmed last week that he bought the magazine at Out of Town News, his spokesman said.
“It’s just interesting, one of those things. A small event that day obviously changed a lot of things,” said Allen spokesman David Postman. “He always remembers buying the magazine that day and seeing the computer on the cover … And you can imagine what went through his head.”
Allen’s recollection sets up a painful irony. The computers that Allen and Gates helped to make ubiquitous are now reducing the demand for news on printed paper, endangering the newsstand where it all began just thee decades ago.
It might have been better for the newsstand if Sheldon Cohen had said to Allen, “Sorry, young man, this magazine is just not for you,” and offered him Sports Illustrated instead.

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