Cheng-san Chen is an unassuming man, running an unassuming store that skims the edge of Harvard University’s campus in Cambridge, Mass. A banner hanging on the storefront announces “Louie’s Superette” is celebrating 25 years of business. But inside, this convenience store owner/clerk, code name, Louie, is a parent’s secret weapon, and known by students as the “man with the electronic eyes.”
Not only does he offer all the standard conveniences that a “Superette” should stock, he holds values that parents can only hope their children develop while living away at college. And he’s worth an in-person visit if you’re traveling through town.
The Many Lives of Chen
Chen, who turns 70 this year, inherited the store and the name “Louie” after purchasing it from the original “Louie” in 1987. He’d arrived in the U.S. from Taiwan after finishing his undergraduate degree in applied mathematics. He’d gone on to get his Ph.D. in biophysics in 1976, was an Assistant Professor at a college in Rochester while also consulting for Xerox, and then left for work in Boston as a computer designer and engineer.
Once in Boston, he bought the store for his wife and family to run-but within two years they were tired of the daily grind and “Louie” found himself behind the counter. He quickly discovered he liked the work, and more importantly, the conversation. “I like talking to very interesting people, very important people…they are either today’s or tomorrow’s leaders.”
Some of those leaders are friends who lived in Harvard’s nearby Mather House as students. They remember Louie’s fondly as the place to get a pint of Ben & Jerry’s to eat after yet another social failure, or to buy a bag of Cape Cod Potato chips and a 2 liter Diet Coke at midnight. For others, Louie offers valuable real-world advice and conversation outside of the classroom, from international and domestic politics to government, computers and more. And for most it’s the standby–Louie’s was, and still is, the place to go for beer and other alcoholic beverages-a certain staple of the collegiate party.
Don’t Mess with Louie
He tells of times past when he was accused by reps for the City of Cambridge of not checking id’s thoroughly enough. “It gave me a headache and cost me thousands to get an attorney to defend myself.” Once was enough. Now not only will you have to show your id, you may be peppered with questions about your birthday and other surprises. “I ask them questions that may catch them off guard,” he says.
When it comes to booze, don’t mess with Louie. If you’re not of legal drinking age and you try to pass off a fake id (bringing back any memories?) you could end up with your face plastered behind the counter on Louie’s fake id “wall of shame.” Or your kid’s fake id could end up in the inches-thick stacks of fake id’s lining his counter drawers. “I know all their secrets. Some students say I’m tough-that they’ve used a computer to make their fake id’s-but I know what a computer can do. They won’t pull it off.” He recounts how one student came in using a fake id that was so good he requested a backup to help prove the first one was real. That backup too, turned out to be a fake. Louie caught both, and called the police.
A strong proponent for a national id card, Louie is quick to explain why this would make his job, as well as many others, so much easier.
He then reminds me why he gave up a previous white collar career track to do this job, and has stayed with it for a quarter of a century. “It’s all about community. It’s my pleasure and an honor to serve the students and all the other interesting people who travel through. It gives me great pleasure too, when kids who’ve graduated go on to great success, but still come back to visit me and the store.”
Louie waxes philosophical as he talks about his own children-a daughter who is getting her MBA, and a son who graduated from Harvard Law School. He reminds anyone in the vicinity the importance of continuing to do or learn something new every day. “But sometimes, I say I’m going to become a Harvard student just so I can get another PhD. My thesis topic this time? The fake id.”