Hanging with the Inn Crowd
A Non-Fiction Travel Essay
Dave and Lucinda Morrison had never considered owning a B&B, not until they went to Rhode Island and fell in love with an 1825 white colonial dream house.
They were in their mid-forties, had two young daughters, and enjoyed a conventional and secure lifestyle. Lucinda tosses back her blond ponytail and laughs when she remembers their impulsive decision to buy the Block Island Old Town Inn.
"No way could we afford a million dollar house on beautiful Block Island," Lucinda says. But she and Dave had a crazy idea how they could swing the purchase. "We thought it would be neat to own a place on a vacation island," Lucinda explains. "We also knew that the only way was to turn a house into a business."
The Morrisons had gone to Block Island during the summer for beaching, biking, and fishing, and on a rainy afternoon had stopped by a real estate office to inquire about homes. The brokers were busy showing houses for sale at multi-million dollar prices and weekly summer rentals in the four-figure range. On the wall was a color picture of an historic house listed for sale.
"The broker called the house a total disaster," Lucinda remembers. "It was an immense, 7,000 sq. ft. fix-up project of leaking roofs, mold, and rotten wood. It was a super-expensive wreck. We didn?t even bother to look at the house."
"Let's go to lunch. We need to talk," Dave said mysteriously the next day, after they'd arrived back in Glastonbury, Connecticut. They taken the one-hour ferryboat ride from Block Island to Point Judith and driven the two hours home. Neither of them had mentioned the picture on the realtor's wall. During lunch, Dave and Lucinda talked. They'd both been thinking about the historic white house with a gable roof. It had once been an inn with ten rooms for paying guests and an apartment for the owners. A smaller photo on the listing showed a backyard picture-book cottage with a kitchen and three bedrooms. Surrounding the house were four acres of green lawns and pink roses.
"The Bermuda of the North" is the phrase that guidebooks use to entice tourists to visit Block Island. On less then eleven square miles, it boasts miles of white sandy beaches, old stone walls, picturesque gray-shingled farmhouses and turreted Victorian hotels with wrap-around front porches.
"We?ll become innkeepers," Dave announced at lunch. Ironically, Lucinda had the same plan. The price tag on the old inn was hundreds of thousands of dollars over the value of their Connecticut mortgaged home, but without a word to each other, both Lucinda and Dave had decided how they could afford the house.
"We knew running an inn would never be a moneymaking proposition, but we'd be where we wanted to be, and we'd be raising our kids in a wonderful community," Dave says.
"We had no idea what we were doing, but we decided that if any bank was stupid enough to give us financing, we'd take the leap and buy ourselves an inn," Lucinda explains.
By September, the months of building inspections and financial negotiations were over. "We had no realistic business plan and no guaranteed future income, but we must have submitted an amazingly creative proposal because suddenly a bank offered to give us money." All Dave and Lucinda had to do was to sell their portfolio of stocks. their lifetime savings, and set the closing date. A few phone calls, and Old Town Inn would be theirs.
Dave didn't sleep that night. "Who would come to our inn?" he wondered. Sure it was charming, but it was over a mile from a beach and just as far from the shops and restaurants of the town. It sat on a road in the middle of the island. Near nothing that tourists wanted. He hadn't made the phone calls to sell their stocks or to schedule the closing. The whole crazy idea could still be aborted. Should be aborted.
"We knew absolutely nothing about running an inn," Lucinda confesses. Dave had been an English major at Franklin and Marshall College and had worked as a bond trader on Wall Street. Now he was in the plastics business in Glastonbury. Lucinda had worked in marketing for Procter and Gamble. They'd been married eleven years, and with young Phoebe and Natalie enjoyed an ordinary suburban life. They were too young to be taking on the post-career B&B role that some retirees choose for themselves.
"Retirees, and other folks, loose their lifetime savings getting into crazy projects like buying a hotel," Dave admits. "Cash disappears into black holes of plumbing disasters." Running a B&B was the scariest, riskiest idea Dave could imagine. What had he been thinking?
Dave told Lucinda his concerns the next morning over breakfast. She had her own worries. She asked Dave, "Why would I want to spend a lifetime changing sheets and towels and listening to strangers complain about broken heating and water systems?"
To take their minds off making a decision, Dave switched on the TV. They found themselves immersed in non-stop coverage of a horror. They, and the world, watched replays of airplanes fly into the World Trade Center towers. Dave saw them rip through the top floors. He visualized the havoc and chaos in the offices. He knew the look of every cubical because he'd worked on the 105th floor of One World Trade Center when he traded bonds for Cantor Fitzgerald. During the September 11 terrorist attack, all the Cantor Fitzgerald employees at work that day in the World Trade Center, 658 people, lost their lives.
"Buying our Block Island dream house was no longer the scariest, riskiest possibility that could happen," Lucinda says.
They waited out September 12 and 13 while the country reeled. "Then we jumped off the cliff," Lucinda says.
When Wall Street reopened on Friday, they sold their portfolio despite the plunging stock prices. They set the date of the closing, put their Glastonbury home on the market, and signed an agreement with a contractor. The house sale would pay for the renovations.
"We didn't dare tell our parents. They'd never have understood how we could give up our 'perfect' life in Glastonbury."
"The house was a total god-awful mess," is the way Lucinda now remembers it. She doesn't know how she could have fallen in love with a wreck of a building that had been unoccupied for the past five years. Dave had convinced a Glastonbury contractor to accompany him to Block Island to inspect the house. Pages of notations listed necessary repairs and rebuilding. The deal was that the builder would bring his workers to the island each week during the winter and spring. Dave would be part of the crew, learning on the job.
"We left Glastonbury on December 21 with a Christmas tree on top of a van, and we headed toward our new life," Lucinda says. David and Lucinda plus four-year-old Natalie, seven-year-old Phoebe, and their yellow Lab Dylan, moved into the tiny cottage in the backyard. The work crews arrived off the ferry on January 2 and tackled the "to-do" list: a new heating system, modern plumbing fixtures, additional bathrooms, and fresh paint on every wall, inside and outside. The floor plan of the old house was a warren of halls, perversely misshapen rooms, and ceilings of diverse heights. Nothing had conventional square corners.
Block Islanders drove back and forth on Old Town Road and watched the workmen with hammers and paintbrushes. After a month of observing Dave hammering and painting they began to wave to him. Then Lucinda and Dave heard "Hi there," and "How's it going on the house?" when they went to Old Town to buy groceries and supplies. The locals respected folks who might be from off-island but weren't too citified to get dirty fixing a furnace and painting shutters.
"We had six months to get the inn in shape or we'd be bankrupt," Lucinda recalls. Through the long winter months of renovations, the goal was to open the Inn around mid-June. Right on schedule, Dave dragged the power saw out of the living room as the first guests walked through the front door of Old Town Inn on June 14, 2002. All ten bedrooms had closets and private bathrooms. New towels hung on new racks; new sheets and blankets covered new mattresses. The furniture was a mix of old and new, oak and maple, charming and interesting. Lucinda had considered splurging on canopy beds and chintz duvets with matching curtains hanging from painted wooden poles: the décor of high-end B&Bs. Instead she opted for "clean and basic," floral printed bedspreads, and standard-sized curtains. The room rates wouldn't be top dollar. At least, not for a few years. The strategy was to fill the Old Town Inn with paying guests, and "cheap is better than expensive when you want ten guest rooms rented every hour of every day."
Lucinda had been a marketing pro for Procter and Gamble, but as she discovered, "selling rooms in a B&B isn't at all the same as publicizing Pampers or Crest toothpaste." The challenge was how to lure tourists to Old Town Inn.
Lucinda discovered that she excels at filling the rooms. "I learned to return every phone inquiry within hours. I still do." Behind the front desk, she relaxes in a chair in a pale pink sweatshirt and blue jeans and unleashes her charm onto prospective guests.
"No, the Old Town Inn isn't in Old Town village. It's on Old Town Road. But it's a quick taxi ride from the ferry."
"Worst possible case is to have someone walk in here and think we have Jacuzzis, marble shower stalls, and TV?s in every room. I don?t get many of those folks, but when they come, I send them away before they even get a room key." No griping customers wanted at Old Town Inn!
By fall of 2004, Old Town Inn had been booked to capacity every day for four months straight. Spring and fall weekends, the Shoulder Season, are always filled. Lots of repeat customers show up. Word has spread that the Morrisons run a tidy, cheery place with great food.
Dave has perfected a secret weapon that guests sniff the moment they check into the Inn. On his second-hand, dark green, two-oven commercial Vulcan gas stove, the piece de resistance of the kitchen, Dave has learned to create blueberry muffins with the highest concentration of fresh berries that guests have ever eaten. He's got a homemade granola recipe." The secret's using old-fashioned rolled oats, oat bran, honey, cinnamon, coconut, and assorted nuts and seeds," he explains as he distributes the recipe at breakfast.
"Your hours are worse than a New York bond trader," a guest comments when he learns that Dave's been working on breakfast since four in the morning.
"Sure, I get up early, but no bond trader ever pulls on rubber boots, grabs a fishing pole, and heads out to the beach before breakfast," Dave boasts. Since he left the corporate world, he's grown a neatly trimmed beard that fits with his new persona of a full time Block Islander. After he starts his yeast bread, Dave puts it aside to rise. Then he's got an hour or so to fish for dinner--fresh-caught stripers.
By six-thirty a.m., he's back at the inn, cutting fresh strawberries and bananas and putting a yogurt coffee cake or a Portuguese corn bread into the Vulcan. Then he starts on eggs and ham baked in muffin tins or crepes wrapped around a complex mixture of ricotta and mozzarella cheese, dill and whatever other herbs he's found at the local market. Wearing tan shorts, a faded green tee shirt, and scuffed leather boat shoes--no socks--he brings his creations to the breakfast buffet table. He's glad to share his recipes. "No guests are crazy enough to compete with me in the B&B business."
Afternoon Happy Hour is another culinary event. There's a carafe of wine, an assortment of sodas, and crackers with local smoked bluefish or Dave's own recipe for salmon marinated in vodka and brown sugar. People gather and sit around the six small tables in the dining room. Guests who've never met before chat with Dave and Lucinda and then with each other.
"Go beaching today?" one asks.
"Block Island's got the greatest beaches in the world. I took a bike down a dirt road and found a deserted piece of paradise" is the answer.
"How'd you happen to come here?" guests ask each other.
"I called a couple of inns and B & B's, and then I got Lucinda at the end of the phone. She had plenty of time to talk to me about how she and Dave fixed up the place. Promised the greatest breakfast I'd ever had."
"Same story here," another guest says.
"This place is super," someone tells Lucinda. "You should put on dinners, weddings, cooking classes."
Dave overhears. He raises his eyebrows in a look of exasperation. He declares a firm, "No. We're doing just fine now, thank you very much. We like to fill the Inn with people going to weddings. But putting on a wedding? No way. Think I want to deal with neurotic brides and mothers-of-the-bride having traumatic meltdowns when a Nor'easter storm's blowing down a wedding tent in my backyard?"
Dave discovered that running a B&B isn't all that much of a challenge, aside from breakfast and hors d'oeuvres and ongoing crises with the plumbing. He missed the plastics business he abandoned when he moved from Glastonbury. Last year he set up an office in the barn where a Mr. Ezra Smith crafted fishing lures a hundred years ago. Times change. The barn now houses twenty-first century creativity. On most days, around 10 AM, Dave climbs the stairs to his second floor office to begin his day as a corporate executive, working for himself. He punches no time clock, but he gladly puts in a full workday for his second Block Island business. This room that once was a hayloft is now filled with computers, printers, fax machines, and demos of mouse pads. Dave communicates by phone, fax, and E-mail with off-island companies that manufacture the laser-decorated products that he creates on his computer. Visiting the companies is an excuse to get off-island now and then and return to the business world.
Lucinda spends her days keeping the Inn going. In the busy season, she hires two chambermaids to help out with the chores. Sometimes they don't satisfy her high standards, and she finds herself doing exactly what she'd warned Dave she didn't plan to do, spending her life changing sheets and towels. "It's not so bad. I've got a system, and the work goes pretty fast."
How does Lucinda like spending twelve months a year on a tiny island an hour from real civilization? She smiles. "Block Island's great for us and the kids." Under a big apple tree, seven-year-old Natalie's on a homemade swing, her long blond hair blowing in the breeze. She asks for a push. "If I go high enough, I can see the ocean from my swing," she announces to the guest who's been recruited to push.
The water's officially Block Island Sound, not the Atlantic Ocean, but an expanse of whitecaps and blue water with white triangles of sailboats surrounds the Island. Sixth grader Phoebe rides off on her bike to meet friends and horses for a canter over the dunes. On an island seven miles by less than four miles, kids can get everywhere by bike. The girls like summer best. They make new friends with the children who come to Old Town Inn.
Lucinda explains that she doesn't have a lot of time to relax during summer and weekends, but, "Excuse me, I think I hear the phone. Could be a booking." Her pleasant voice tells the caller, "You're lucky. We do have a room for you next weekend. Maybe you'd like to stay an extra day or so. Weather's crisp and clear in the fall, and it's a birders heaven this time of year. Over one hundred and sixty different kinds of birds fly over Block Island on their trip south." She's got to stay close to the phone or the rooms won't be filled.
Dave and Lucinda never expected that running Old Town Inn would produce a jackpot payoff. And they were right. But by end of their third season, the red ink on the ledger had slowly turned to black. Counting mortgage, renovations, and all the other costs, they actually ran a profit in 2005. A small one. And they're thrilled how much the value of the property has increased, even though it's paper profit, not dollars in the bank.
They still have lists and lists of improvements they'd like to make. A few of the bathrooms have 1950s turquoise sinks and beige linoleum squares on the floors. Window shades may or may not roll up and down. Year by year, the rooms of Old Town Inn will gain a few changes in décor.
There's no bonanza of wealth, but their own Bonanza is parked less than a mile down the road at the Block Island Airport. It's a second-hand, single engine, Bonanza airplane with four gray vinyl seats. Outside, it's painted white with burgundy and taupe accents. And it doesn't need repairs on the plumbing or the heating. There're no sheets to change. Dave's got a pilot's license, and he uses the Bonanza for business trips to visit plastics manufacturers and to take the family on vacations.
When winter temperature drops to the single digits and freezing winds blow from the Sound, Block Island seems a long way from the mainland. Dave and Lucinda and the girls fly to off-island destinations.
After New Year's, they shut down the Inn till spring, and when the February school vacation came around, the Bonanza flew the family to an island in the Caribbean. Dave and Lucinda stayed away from realtors on the trip. What if they found a beach house with banana and mango trees in the backyard? They definitely don't plan to run a Caribbean winter B&B. But who knows? They never planned to run the Old Town Inn.
"Life's perfect," Lucinda says. "Why wait until you're old or maybe until it's too late to do what you want to do with your life?"