Read Roberta's reflections on the Bar Harbor bed and breakfast experience. The following items are included in the forthcoming collection by Roberta Chester called “Be My Guest: The Inside Story of a B & B in Maine.”
“2015, My Swan Song Summer”
In 2009, I wrote “Swan Song Summer” of the inside cover of our guest book, fully intending this to be my last performance, and that I would be retiring at the end of the season. My friends gave me a wonderful end of season party, at which I ceremoniously presented a beautiful new, symbolic apron to my very capable daughter Lisabeth, who would be taking charge.
But regardless of my intentions, it didn’t happen; I was still working, albeit gradually less and less, (given my two knees which were more and more becoming candidates for replacement surgery), for the next six years. I wore that same apron now very much faded, so many times that it was ready to retire long before I was. It became a standing joke whenever I said “this is my last year” that my friends would roll their eyes and respond with “oh, sure, we’ve heard that before.”
But 2015 was definitely my last year. For one thing, I had knee surgery in July, and although I still managed to hobble around the kitchen⎯no easy feat because our renovated kitchen has a four ft. by 10 ft. island⎯it was a chore. Most of my participation was limited to making our granola, loading and unloading the dishwasher, folding laundry, and filling in as a prep cook.
“My retirement” is somewhat bittersweet, though. I am not abandoning “my baby” but just giving it up for adoption, even if it is my daughter who is the recipient of this enterprise. Not that this house, built in 1880 and subject to the elements⎯thanks to its great location on the ocean⎯has been easy these many years. I have said on occasion that it’s like having 20 children with various developmental issues. We have dealt (thanks goodness, successfully, but at some cost,) with tree issues, water issues, insect issues, ice dam issues, to the extent that I have often felt that we in a constant battle against entropy, that tendency for systems to run down into chaos, while we humans are pushing it back in our attempt to establish order. This is a small price to pay for a location that never fails to take my breath away when I walk across the lawn to the ocean. However, I have come to wonder whether there might be a direct proportion between the degree to which someone or something requires effort and the attachment to that thing.
If so, that would explain, at least in part, the strength of my attachment to the Shore Path Cottage. Before it became a B & B I raised my children here, and in these rooms we enacted all the various scenarios, arrivals, and departures, decisions and crises that families experience in the course of many years. I look back on all the laughter and tears and all those comings and goings from the time we first arrived and embarked on the grand and brave adventure of living in Maine.
We left a centrally heated house in suburban New Jersey for our far less comfortable new home in what seemed like the wilds of Maine, or what I affectionately referred to as “the last outpost of the Diaspora” and to myself as “a babe in the woods.” Forty years ago, with every rainstorm we lost electricity, and we were on a constant vigil against frozen pipes, which gratefully responded to hair driers. But oh, it was beautiful when we were surrounded by nothing but woods on three sides and the ocean on the fourth.
In those days, having a B & B was not even a twinkle in my eye. However when one by one the children left home leaving empty rooms, I was inspired (and thanks to the encouragement of a friend who owned one) to start a B & B. That “inspiration” had more than a little to do with the fact that our real estate taxes which were $400/per year began to exponentially increase.
Beginning with one room, it didn’t seem so formidable. In the mid 1980's the B & B business was so very different that it is now. Most of our business was about equally divided between word-of-mouth referrals, tourists who came off the street, and those who inquired via the Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce. Our guests paid us by check, cash, or travellers checks.
With the advent of the internet everything changed. Our guests make their reservations online, well in advance of their visit. Thanks to the technology, the B & B business is infinitely more complicated, as we are forced to deal with the complexities of search engines and key words, slick web sites, and the constant pressure to upgrade our presence on the web, fueled by a flood of companies promising to do that. Now it is crucial to have a strong social media presence in addition to having a web site that is easily accessible via mobile phones. International booking sites like booking.com and Expedia are the preferred means of making reservations, so that smaller companies can’t compete. And then there’s Trip Advisor, Yelp, and others who strike fear in the hearts of B & B owners. Guests have an instant forum to praise but also slam their accommodations, sometimes for not such legitimate reasons.
Like so much else about the ramifications of this technology, what started as a great idea⎯a vehicle by which the public could share their experiences regarding accommodations⎯has too often been abused. Travellers are offered incentives to write favorable reviews as the innkeepers become frantic to improve their ratings. A great bed and outstanding breakfast are now just the basics which must be augmented by numerous amenities. Arguably, the bed and breakfast business must be one of the oldest enterprises, accommodating hungry and tired travellers coming off the road and seeking food and shelter, but the internet has made this business, like many others, infinitely more complicated and competitive.
Just one of the challenges involves finding housing for household help, most of whom are coming from foreign countries to work in Bar Harbor, becoming renowned as a lucrative employment destination. Years ago, when Bar Harbor's lodging industry was mainly B & B's, the local high school students worked as housekeepers, among them my daughters who gained valuable experience, and who include among their respective professional achievements, being great cleaners.
Today, as in the past, most of the local B & B’s are mom and pop operations (in which the pop is of the handy variety), eliminating the need for fix-it people, unlike the Shore Path Cottage which has been managed for years by mom and daughter(s) Luckily, these past few years, Lisabeth, an architect by profession with some hands-on carpentry skills has taken over, but there is no substitute for having a man around the house who can do heavy work. For several weeks in 2015 we were very fortunate to have Lisabeth's 18 year old son (and my grandson) Tuvie , a strapping young man, in residence and we took full advantage of his muscle power. Otherwise, like Blanche Dubois, we “rely on the kindness of strangers.” We are delighted when one of our guests with handy man skills noticing a little something that needs fixing and kindly offers to help. “Be my guest,” I assure him.
As I proceed step by step into retiring from this enterprise, I can’t conceive of totally cutting the proverbial apron strings. I am reminded of a poem that Maya Angelou wrote after giving birth in which she said “now that I am forever with child.” I am hoping to continue to help out, if only to cut up fresh fruit in the morning. Besides, I guess I am hooked on the delightful experience of meeting wonderful people from such a variety of places. It is, however, very gratifying to see the next generation taking charge of “my baby.” Beginning with the 2016 season, it will be my unqualified pleasure to buy my daughter Lisabeth a new apron.
- Roberta Chester, 2015