The New York Times, The Metro Section
Saturday, November 26, 1994
For New Innkeepers, a Worry Season The Solitude of a Winter Island Tests Hopes for a New Life
By: Kirk Johnson
BLOCK ISLAND, R.I. -- Raw winds tear across the moor and ponds of this mostly treeless speck of land off the tip of Long Island, rattling the window panes of the empty Atlantic Inn, and sometimes the nerves of it new proprietors, Anne and Brad Marthens.
The Marthens, formerly of Cheshire, Conn., traded in their lives of upward mobility on the mainland to take up innkeeping here in October, just as the hectic summer season was settling into the gray of winter an hour’s ferry ride out into the Atlantic ocean. They’ve never run an inn before, they’re about a million dollars in debt, and they have all winter to brood over it in a closed-for-the-season Victorian Inn on an island where the winter population drops to about 800.
“Ever seen ‘The Shining’?” Mr. Marthens said, leading a visitor down an unheated third-floor hallway, referring to the Stephen King tale in which a young couple takes over a lonely, isolated old hotel with unfortunate results. The new island neighbors of the Marthens have even been kind enough to mention the story, in case the couple hadn’t thought of it. “All you need is whatchamacallit breaking down the door and going ‘Heeeere’s Johnny!’” Mr. Marthens said.
Many people fantasize about running a country inn, imagining a life of hearty hospitality, cozy ambiance and hand-quilted homeyness, far from the madding crowd. The Marthens have made that leap, and they believe it will ultimately be the best thing they ever did. But as they stand on the threshold of their new lives, they are also the first to admit that their allotment of worries and anxieties is at least, for the moment, far beyond anything they ever experienced in the crowded, crime-ridden mainland.
“Our heads are spinning,” Mrs. Marthens said.
Consultants who helped the Marthens through the process of finding the Atlantic Inn and taking it over say that this first crucial year will be rough, the learning curve sharp and steep. Enduring the stillness of a 115-year-old 21-room inn as the Marthens paint and wallpaper their way toward spring is only the beginning.
“The first year, people really are out to sea,” said Heide Bredfeldt, a former psychologist at a Vermont mental institution who now runs a consulting firm with her husband in Brattleboro, VT., giving seminars about the bed-and-breakfast business. “By the second year, they have a rhythm down, or they’ve come to a crossroads where they’ve really confronted each other and made some changes. Also, they’ve learned the business.”
Mrs. Bredfeldt said the main goal of her course was to throw every bucketful of cold water possible on the romantic notions of innkeeping, so that people who commit themselves are without illusion. One of her main themes is that quaint inns are essentially manufactured fantasy world for guests, and that the cost of owning and running such a place is that the hosts - if they’re doing their jobs right - are to busy creating the details of mood, food and ambiance to enjoy any of it themselves.
“People fantasize about the life style,” she said. “But as an innkeeper, you’re the provider of a fantasy that you really can’t participate in.”
The Marthens took Mrs. Bredfeldt’s course last year but persevered, anyway, pursuing a dream that took root in the inns of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard and Cape Cod, where they had originally looked for a place to buy. Mr. Marthens, 34, quit his job as a cable television advertising sales executive and Regional Manager with the Times Mirror Company last year to devote himself to the search full time. Mrs. Marthens, a 37-year-old former office manager, quit her job when their son, Brad, was born five years ago.
What they were looking for, they said, was a place near the sea, where Brad could grow up close to nature and where work would be more than just something that produced a paycheck. The cable-television industry was also changing, Mr. Marthens said, in ways he did not like. If he had stayed with Times Mirror, there would have been more travel and perhaps a move farther from Rhode Island, where most of Mrs. Marthens’s family lives.
“It was getting to the point, in the business world, where we were making a very good living, but I wasn’t enjoying it” Mr. Marthens said.
Finally in 1993, after years of thing about it, they decided to take the plunge. In September, they sold their house, and with the car already packed, drove directly from the lawyer’s office to the ferry and into their new lives. They have invested almost all their savings, including the proceeds from their Connecticut home, into the inn- everything but a little retirement money.
“Nearly everything is tied up in this,” Mr. Marthens said. “It’s going to be make or break!”
Sitting in the front parlor, rain pelting the windows, Mr. Marthens is still the salesman, ebullient and upbeat, full of vim and vision, Mrs. Marthens is quieter, more likely to speak of the uncertainties and unknowns.
“It’s hard getting into a small community like this,” she said. The big event of the fall, for example, was an islandwide turkey dinner. “That’s what we have to look forward to in term o f meeting people,” she said. “There’s no bowling alley. There’s no place to hang around.”
Veterans of Block Island say the stillness of the island lifer in winter – empty beaches, gray skies, the nearly constant wind – is rendered all the more profound by the comparisons to the frenetic summer tourist season when upward of 15,000 people might be biking and hiking around the 11-square-mile island.
On Block Island in winter, you can get a bottle of Scotch but not a bottle of antibiotics. You can get takeout Kentucky Fried Chicken and Chinese food. (Fast-food restaurants in Westerly, R.I., will drop it off a the Westerly Airport, where it is put o the next tiny plane flying to the island). But you can’t get a haircut, unless it is during the once-a-week visit by the mainland barber, who makes house calls. Steak costs $10 a pound at the two-aisle general store, and milk is $4 a gallon.
But it is the crossing itself, islanders say, that probably most isolates the island and keeps the off-season traffic to a minimum. The ferry from New London, Conn., ceases operation in September, an the Montauk, L.I., ferry closes down in October, leaving only the hour-and-10-minute ride from Point Judith, R.I., which is often extremely choppy and often canceled in winter because of the weather.
Winter also exacts a certain inevitable erosion of privacy as the island returns to its small-town roots, residents say. Block Islanders will watch out for each other and rally around a resident in trouble, but that means knowing all the details. “The first week I was here, I went into the store, and the next day I was told I should buy Ben & Jerry’s, not Häagen-Dazs, because of their politics, and they knew what flavors I liked,” said Rick Scherza who is both principal and district superintendent at the kindergarden-through-12th grade Block Island School, which this year has a graduating class of five students. Mr. Scherza came to the island four years ago for his job and stayed on.
At the Atlantic Inn, perhaps the most pressing concern is hiring a chef. The inn, set on six acres, with a separate building that the Marthens intend to turn gradually into their home, has its own herb garden and grape arbor and an 85 –seat restaurant that the Marthens say has veered from great to terrible over the years. Hiring the right chef is so important a decision that they intend to offer their candidate a full-time year-round job – he or she will be the Atlantic Inn’s only permanent employee – supervising the kitchen in summer, doing odd jobs and maintenance through the winter.
Resumes for summer workers – mostly college students – are expected to start to arrive in January. By April, when the doors 'swing open at the foot of the big broad-planked front porch, and windows a flung wide to catch the sea breezes, everything will have to be ready, and the Marthens say it will probably come far sooner than they expect. Then the roller-coaster ride really starts.
For now, they are trying to enjoy occasional walk on the beach, reveling I the sight of the deer who come to nibble on their shrubs.
“One of the things we love about this is that it’s going to be, we hope, a really great place for our son to grow up,” Mr. Marthens said. “But I never thought I’d be worrying the way I worry now!”