|Accolades: Providence Journal 11/2/95
They gave up the rat race only to work like dogs as Block Island InnkeepersProvidence Journal, November 2, 1995
By Kirk Johnson
The New York Times
Brad and Anne Marthens can tell you a lot about sheets. It was their first week running an old Victorian inn on Block Island when the Marthenses discovered that the innkeeping guidebooks were wrong about linens. Because of the ferry schedule – and the fact that the nearest commercial laundry is on the mainland – an inn needs three full sets oflinen, now two. Dirty sheets go out on the 12:30 p.m. ferry to PointJudith, and they do not come back until the 9 a.m. boat the next day, at the earliest.
“We needed a lot more,” Anne Marthens said with a sign. “Of all the things we didn’t realize.”
Anne Marthens’s words provide an apt code for the couple’s first year as inn keepers. The things they didn’t realize for better and worse, have formed the texture of their lives since they came to this island, last fall.
They had never run an inn before or lived on an island, but here they dived in head first, life savings and all, pursuing their dream in a 116-year-old, 21-room hilltop retreat called the Atlantic Inn, leaving friends, jobs, routines and familiarity all behind them.
They have not found paradise or perfection. Life here, they said, has been confusing and invariably challenging. But unlike the thousands of people who only dream of tossing aside the work day world, the Marthenses have done it.
The saga began in September of 1994, when they signed papers selling their home in Cheshire, Conn. Leaving their lawyer’s office, the Marthenses drove directly to the ferry, their car loaded with what they could carry.
The rest of their belongings, which followed later, could not fit in their small upstairs manager’s apartment, so it has been scattered through various rooms ofthe inn or put into storage.
Through the winter, with the innclosed and empty, the couple painted, changed fixtures and doorknobs and made lists. In the summer, they raced to keep up with the seasonal crush, gratified that the inn was full most nights, but staggered by the burden as well.
Like one long shakedown cruise, they said,the year is ending as it began: complicated, noisy, chaotic, at times profoundly moving, but always new.
“We certainly have questioned ourselves many times, saying ‘What have we done?’” said BradMarthens, 35 a former advertising executive for Times Mirror cable television. “But I can honestly say we’ve never been happier. I’m convinced we made the right decision, even though it has not been an easy road.”
Some moments, the Marthenses said, will be etchedin their minds forever. They both speak of the day last spring, abouta month before opening day, when the dining room was still a mess ofdust and dirt and uninstalled carpet. Out of nowhere, their chef and first employee, Lawrence Busteed, announced that dinner would beserved. He spread a white tablecloth and put out the good china, andthey all sat down together in the silent, empty, dirty inn and dined.
“Sometimes they get to a point where they just don’t know what to do,” said Busteed, whose parents once managed the Atlantic Inn. Busteed, 33, said part of his role was to provide a calming influence. “I just keeptelling them, ‘IT takes time; it takes years,’” he said.
It also helps to have emergency financial reserves, as the Marthenses were repeatedly told in the innkeeping course they took before the purchase.
One morning in March, for instance, after a weird but typical Block Island spring – alternating periods of icy cold fog and blazing sun – the Marthenses realized that the paint applied just last summer by the previous owners had begun to bubble and peel. A month before opening day, the whole exterior needed painting.
That crisis, along with the sheets and a few lesser bumps, have pushed the couple’s first year expenses about 15 percent to 20 percent higher than they had planned. Most of their other assets – including the proceeds fromtheir home and almost all their savings – have been put into the down payment on the inn, which they bought for $1.1 million.
Thereal bottom line of innkeeping, however, is not the money but the workload: the Marthenses say they are working harder than they ever have.
Forget the genteel charm of the inn’s croquet-field front lawn and the melodic tinkling of the early evening cocktail hour. You cannot hear the hushed, distant thunder of the surf when you are behind the front deskor at the computer paying the bills at 5 a.m.
What’s worse, the Marthenses have found that to spend time with their 5-year-old son,Brad Jr., and minimize his hours in day care, they must work separate shifts, which means less time together as a family. One of them must always be on duty by 6:30 a.m. to help get ready for the breakfast buffet, and one - usually Brad Marthens – also works in the evenings, helping out in the dining room.
At crush times, like Sunday morning check-out time, they work side by side behind the front desk, beaming at the compliments and listening with solicitous earnestness to the complaints, while their son plays on the front foyer carpet.
Want a day off? It it’s August, it’s probably out of the question. Even slipping away for just a few hours is an act of will.
“Not caving in – that’s the hard part,” said Anne Marthens, 37, a former office manager who quit her job when her son was born. “You just have to say, “I’m going.’”
Block Island’s summer economy works onthe same principle – that a whole year’s worth of commerce can becrammed into one season. In high summer, 15,000 people might be on the11-square-mile island. There are two seasonal movie theaters, and youcan get a plat of calamari at Rebecca’s until 2 a.m.
In winter, almost all the inns, including the Atlantic, close, and the population plummets to about 500.
Butisland life also has a continuity that Marthenses said they had notanticipated. Lives get bound up in places like the Atlantic Inn. Oldproperties like this attract orbits of people who love them, and theysometimes cannot tear themselves away.
When Anne Marthens’sfather died in June, for example, she said her grief had beenimmediately tinged with panic. How could they leave the inn?
Fromout of the blue, the previous managers – Busteed’s parents, Ken andLinda – called from their home in Vermont. They had heard that theMarthenses were in trouble. Did they need a couple of pinch-hittersfor a week, at no charge?
“Innkeeping is such a commitment,”Linda Busteed explained. “You push so much of yourself into it, 15hours a day, every day you’re open. There’s like a loyalty, an espritde corps as things blossom – it’s hard to leave.”
The Marthenses say they will never forget one of their first guests, alibrarian from New York City. For a time, in fact, she was the inn’sonly guest. Sometimes in the mornings and afternoons, she and theMarthenses would sit together and chat. She learned their story andmet their son, who entered kindergarten this fall, and when theislandwide town meeting was held during her stay, she went as a sort ofamateur anthropologist, intrigued by island politics. She also broughtback all the literature she could find about the island’s schoolsystem, while the Marthenses stayed at the inn and worked.
“Shewas just he nicest woman in the world,” Brad Marthens said. “It was exactly the right way for us to kind of ease into innkeeping.
The Providence Journal Bulletin
HERs Section, Pages 14-15
November 2, 1995