Friday, July 31, 2009

What's in a Name

Today's entry is a two-parter: Guests fixated on the name of the Inn often ask: Where are the blueberries? Where is the cove?

There are two blueberry locations on the property. The big bush (5 ft. by 6 ft.) that the inn is named after is in the backyard behind the Hideaway Suite. It produces 8-12 gallons of juicy berries every year, so we can have fresh blueberry pancakes all July and August with enough left over to last most of the winter. Since most of our guests don't venture onto the "back forty," it's not surprising that they are unaware of the big bush. (Please ignore the fact that we never got around to mulching inside the bird netting.)

However, there is also a row of five blueberry bushes along the southern end of the main parking lot. Seely's parents planted those after we purchased the inn. It is not uncommon for people who have backed their cars so far into parking spaces that they have to push the bushes aside to get their luggage out of the trunk to ask the next morning at breakfast: "So where are the blueberries?"

One theory is that so many of our guests spend arrival days stuck in beach traffic for hours at a time that when they get here, the only thing they are focused on is how quickly they can get out of the vehicle and find a bathroom. Things like scenery and inn amenities can wait until urgent priorities are dealt with. The other explanation is that most people aren't botantists and just don't recognize the bushes unless they are full of ripe berries calling the guests to "sneak a few."

And about that Cove. It's confession time. There is no actual geographic feature known as Blueberry Cove. When we were trying to come up with a name for the inn we decided we wanted something high in the alphabetical listings that would appear on the web or in travel guides. Since the big blueberry bush was about the only thing on the property that didn't have to be renovated or upgraded, I thought it would nice to include in the name. That it was producing so well despite years of benign neglect seemed to be good karma too. The Cove part came about because when I think cove, I think safe, welcoming shelter.

So Blueberry Cove Inn: An alphabetically pleasing, welcoming and safe place for romantic weekends or family gatherings. And when our web consultant found the dynamite blueberry wallpaper that helps make our website so distinctive, it was a done deal. Thanks Darya.

Monday, July 27, 2009

The Gulag Era

I mean no disrespect to those who suffered in the Gulags but as the magnitude of the work ahead of us hit us in the face this became a work camp.

You know how everyone in the family suddenly wants to see your new home even if you have sheets for curtains and unpacked boxes for coffee tables? Well this place was even more of a gawker's paradise.

My parents followed us from TX as we moved the second load of furniture and a car on a trailer north. They should have turned around when the trailer tire caught on fire just out of Dayton, OH and they sailed past us as we were on the shoulder hoping the car didn't catch on fire. Hot tip: if a trailer tire is on fire don't waste your valuable thermos of tea trying to put it out. You have to get the fire department.

The look of horror on my parent's faces as they toured the building the first day was almost comical. They tried to say it had potential but balanced that with questions about whether we could get out of the sale. My sister and her partner were much more supportive but pensive. My brother gagged. Dave's family would visit later while we were under construction and were equally dumbfounded.

What really tickled the family was our willingness to recruit them to do grotty work for as long as we could keep them on their feet with their only reward being a trip out to a nice dinner which they got to pay for. We always had a place for them to sleep but they had plenty of work to do.

And, they came back repeatedly to help. For which we are eternally grateful.

Beth on demolition; Jim hanging Sheetrock in the Shells bath; Dad pulling nails as viewed through new studs; Peg on break; Mom rebuilding kitchen soffit; Peg working on Suite bath; Mom learning to hang Sheetrock. Secretary Sophia; Dad and Dave mud wall repair in the Crow's Nest; Dave cuts hole for new closet door; Matt and Sam demolish the porch steps; Beth painting the Suite ceiling; Mom sewing; Seely installing Suite tile.

One classic example of how this became known as the Gulag involved most of the family. One night my parents went to sleep on twin cots in what is now the Whirlpool Suite bedroom. About 11 p.m. the work crew showed up: my sister Beth, her partner Peg, my brother Jim, Dave and I. By morning the dingy whitish walls had four coats of jewel toned red paint. My parents never budged and were somewhat frightened when they woke up and didn't quite know where they were.

And that was only the first all night work session.....

Friday, July 24, 2009

Where did you get the furniture?

Guests are very inquisitive. We are often asked about the origins of the furniture in the house. We have a wide assortment of furniture styles but it seems to blend together nicely. Some things came from farm and estate sales in Missouri where Seely's parents harbored an auction bug. More recently Craig's List has produced interesting pieces. Several antiques in the house are Seely family heirlooms. Some of our favorite family pieces are a walnut burl wardrobe and a detailed pressed back rocker.

Much of the furniture was picked up a "container auctions" while we lived in Houston but long before we had an actual building. After attending aspiring innkeeper seminars we had an idea of how many rooms we would need to make a living. After staying at numerous B&Bs we knew what was important to have in each room. It made perfect sense to us to start accumulating furniture, sheets, and other goods before we had any idea of where we were going. Besides, we had disposable income and auctions are just plain old fun. This was the first sign of our insanity according to family and friends.

Container auctions are wild affairs. The auction house sends someone to France or England to fill a shipping container with antique, semi antique, and vintage goods of varying quality which they bring over for resale. As much of the container as possible is tagged "antique" to skirt import taxes so it is a buyer beware situation.

Many of our Oriental rugs are from Houston auctions. As an oil town, Houston has acres of Oriental rugs. When the Middle East oil fields were first developed by American workers many rugs were imported as personal baggage. By the time we were cruising auctions many of those workers were closing their homes to move into retirement centers. Prices were low, selection was wide, and we had a blast just attending auctions to see the variety of patterns.

Most of the items we brought with us found a place in the house. Some things were not up to the wear and tear and had to be replaced. Other things get replaced as our tastes change. Overall, buying in a hodge podge fashion worked out for us. Fortunately, most of the guests seem to like the eclectic style.

Monday, July 20, 2009

The Competition

We are in our 10th year running the Blueberry Cove Inn. Narragansett has evolved over the years but it is still a lovely seaside town. It is the kind of place that many people visit every year.

We have two sets of guests that visit so often they have begun to feel like family members.

The Chapmans of PA stayed with us that first primitive summer when we still let kids sleep on the floor of their parents' room. Little did we know that they would become such loyal and supportive visitors. The first wedding at the Blueberry Cove Inn will be their son's, whenever that happy event takes place.

The Adlers of RI didn't find us until a few years later when they were walking past the building and feeling very disenchanted with the hotel they had been staying in for years. Happy guests on the porch and the phone number on our sign convinced them to give us a try. Cleanliness, location, and good customer service keeps them coming back.

Both families have witnessed the evolution of the building and suffered through our innkeeper learning curve. Although they have never met they did learn about each other when each tried to lay claim to the title of "Most Frequent Guest." It started as a joke but they ask for the "score" each time they book.

We have other guests that were in the running. One couple got to seven stays but then had one grandchild too many for comfort and now need to rent a bigger house. Some have gotten to eight visits (and still counting we hope.) But the Adlers and the Chapmans have accumulated 23 trips combined.

Currently the Chapmans are ahead with 13 visits to the Adlers' 10.

But Dave and I are the real winners in this competition because we have had the privilege to know so many wonderful people over the years.

And so it begins

Sorely disappointed that the property we visited in CT was completely unsuitable for our plans and then coming to Narragansett, RI to see something that was a hundred times more unsuitable put a damper on our vacation mood. Being optimists (or stark raving lunatics depending on who you talk to) we shrugged it off and moved on to a well deserved break.

Returning to humid Houston reminded us of how much it was time to continue planning for a different future. Since we didn't have any other properties to visit I decided to do a fake business plan for the Narragansett dump. As a Social Worker I had been involved in writing grant proposals to fund various projects. Essentially a a grant proposal and a business plan are the same thing. Both involve extensive research, numbers crunching, projections, budgets, and a lot of time. The main difference is that you don't have to justify the moral and social impacts of your loan application to sway a bank officer. Cookies and muffins will suffice.

So after a few weeks of calling Narragansett town hall, the state Health Department, other B&B owners in the area, and lots of time on a very primitive computer (circa 1986) I had a plan.

Surprisingly, the business plan said to buy it, fix it and eventually live comfortably.

After months of negotiations with the owners and bankers we finally owned the property. Burning all our bridges behind us we loaded up the first truck of furniture and headed North. I'd say we never looked back but that would be a stretch since Dave was to stay in Houston for the first few months while I started on the renovations.

And so the Gulag era began...

Friday, July 17, 2009

Weekend Events

Courtesy of the Narragansett Chamber of Commerce:

Tonight is the second free concert in the 2009 Summer Concert Series at the Gazebo in Narragansett. *AVENUE A will perform swing, Dixie, jazz music at 6pm

The 31st annual Hot Air Balloon Festival will be held at the University of Rhode Island Athletic fields in Kingston. Admission is $10 for adults, children 14 and under are $3 or $25 for Mom, Dad, and Children. **Parking is FREE! Events include:

July 17, Friday - Balloon Glow at dusk
John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band will perform at 6:45pm
July 18, Saturday - Dawn til Dusk, Balloons will lift as early as 6am (weather permitting)
Fireworks will begin at 9:30pm
July 19, Sunday - Dawn til Dusk, Balloons will lift as early as 6am (weather permitting)
Golf Ball Drop Raffle, sponsored by the South Kingstown Chamber, is at 1:30pm

The Ocean State Reggae Festival will be held at Ninigret Park (Rt. 1) in Charlestown
*One day admission in advance is $45, the day of $55
**Two day admission, which includes free camping, is $90 in advance and $110 the day of
Festivities begin from noon til 10pm both Saturday (June 18) and Sunday (June19)

Friday FAQs: Which is the nicest room?

One of the trickiest questions that guests who are unfamiliar with the inn ask is: Which of your rooms is the nicest? Since we have reshaped and redecorated every space on the property, this is a little like asking a parent which of their nine children is the favorite. They probably have one, but they’re unlikely to go public with the information.

We think all of our rooms are nice. If you’re budget conscious, the Seashore is the least expensive because it has a private bath down the hall and the least floor space (cozy as we marketing professionals like to say). But it has beautiful shorescape wallpaper, attractive wainscoting and an electric fireplace for those who like to snuggle up on fall or winter nights. It also offers a view of the fishpond and is the quietest room since it faces a side street.

Many of our female guests gravitate to the Rose Garden Room, because of the floral bedspread, curtains, and lace canopy over the bed. Seely’s mom had a major role in designing this room and I’m fond of the rose-colored, beveled tiles in the bath (probably because I found them at a closeout sale).

If you crave extra sleeping space, the Shells and Meadow Rooms or the Hideaway and Whirlpool Suites all offer king-size beds. The Whirlpool tubs in the two suites and the Lighthouse Whirlpool Room pretty much sell themselves no matter what the season is. The Hideaway’s whirlpool in front of our only wood burning fireplace is the most popular choice during the cooler months.

Seely is very partial toward the Shells which despite being on the third floor feels light and spacious. The Crow’s Nest (which is begging for a new name) is on its third decorating scheme in 10 years and its d├ęcor is a bit more modern than the others. We have a couple that consistantly books the Glen Room for their get-aways and are disappointed if it is already booked.

The idea when we started out 11 years ago was to provide different levels of accommodation so we had something to offer all income levels and so each room has a distinct character and feel of its own. But when it come to picking a favorite, we’d rather let you decide based on what features are most important to you.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Monday Memories

Guests always want to know why we came to Narragansett, RI after living in Houston for so many years. Eventually we will get around to that question in Friday FAQs. Their other questions revolve around the building: why this building, was it a B&B, what kind of changes have you made, how large is the mortgage, how much do you pay in utilities, where do you live?

A few of those questions are just a little too much but it is time to share the building's evolution. Welcome to Monday Memories.

We saw an ad for this place a few days before we were to evaluate a property in New London, CT. We had plans to leave CT, have lunch in Narragansett at Champlin's and then vacation in New Hampshire in the late Fall. It seemed natural to stop in to see the building since we were going to be in the neighborhood.

And what a building it was. It was being used as a $50 a week boarding house. Cars and trucks parked on the lawns at random. Scraggly little hedge by the sidewalk (which disappeared before closing.) Broken front door. Peeling paint, broken porch banisters, and ripped screens. And those were the good parts.

Well, in for a dime, in for a dollar, time to look inside. The broken door opened into a filthy little hall and an empty front room. Looking up the stairs you were immediately impressed by the lack of a ceiling at the first floor landing. At least there was a fan with a light up there. It was the only hall lighting other than the emergency exit signs.

The first floor had one boarding room and a two bedroom apartment. The apartment tenant had cats, rabbits, and ferrets which gave the unit a unique aroma. The second apartment (also 2 bedrooms) was an addition at the back of the building.

You are lucky a computer doesn't have a scratch and sniff option as the atmosphere in the rest of the house was exceptionally aromatic. In addition to the expected trash, mildew, and dirty clothing was the piquant blend of recreational inhalants.

The second floor had four boarding rooms and one "working" bath. The second bath had big "do not use" signs on it but clearly the tenants were choosing to be illiterate. One of the rooms had a dinky half bath in exceptionally good condition if you didn't mind your knees hitting the wall when you used the commode.

The third floor featured three boarding rooms, one "sort of working" bath, and the "fire escape room" that was full of trash and weight lifting stuff. The fire escape door consisted of a piece of plywood on broken hinges.

The basements were delightful. Beyond the trash and mildew you could see the original granite boulders that formed the foundation of the original buildings. Amazingly ineffectual plumbing repairs dripped like the seepage in Mamouth Cave. The "finished basement" beneath the second apartment had flooded more than once because of a faulty sump pump. No one had bothered to remove the ruined walls or furniture.

If you wanted a museum that featured the history of plumbing and electricity this was the place to buy. If you wanted an early 20th century coal boiler that had been converted to oil this place had two. If you wanted original antique windows (although some panes were actually Plexiglas) your search was over.

We walked away thinking, "what a great location but no way we would buy this dump."

(to be continued......)

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Friday FAQs: Dining Options

Guest often ask where they should go to eat while they are in town. Of course we have our favorites but we offer a basket full of local menus for guests to read. So much depends on the day of the week (some are closed on Mondays), the time of day, and the guest's mood, budget and purpose (do they really want to propose at the clam shack or the fancy place?) Very few places will take reservations unless it is a party of six or more.

If you want to walk to dinner we suggest Cheeky Monkey, Markos Kabob, and Turtle Soup for reliably great food. PJs Pub, Crazy Burger, Trio, Basil's and Coast Guard House are also close by. Whale's Tail and the Picnic Basket deli are good choices in the Pier area for lunch.

Seafood lovers have lots of choices. Some frequent Monihan's Dock at the end of the Seawall although it isn't on my favorite list. A short drive down to Galilee for Champlin's or George's lets you debate which one is better - the locals are generally in two camps on that issue. Aunt Carrie's was selected as an American Classic by James Beard in the clam shack division and is close to another popular clam shack, Iggy's Doughboys.

Need a special place? You can never go wrong with Spain although you will have to wait for a table most evenings. Cheeky Monkey is an intimate setting with a wonderful wine list. If you want Drunken Scallops or Beef Wellington Mariner Grill offers those and much more.

Pizza? If you have the craving we prefer DB's Pizza or Pier Pizza both of which deliver for free so you can enjoy Pizza on the Porch without the hassle of crowds. Pub food? A short drive to Twin Willows or the Mew's Tavern is worth the effort. Italian? try Catarina's or Arturo Joe's for the classics.

Last, but not least, no foodie should skip a trip (or two or three) to Brickley's for the most wonderful ice cream in the county.

Needless to say, time and space won't allow me to detail every dining spot in town. Let me know if you have favorites that aren't mentioned.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Friday FAQs: ceilings

An architectural question we frequently hear is: Why are the ceilings different heights on every floor of the house?

This is most often asked by visitors staying on the third floor, where it is only seven feet four inches to the ceilings in the rooms. It doesn't bother anyone except the basketball players but it is noticable.

The ceilings get progressively higher as you get closer to terra firma -- 9 feet on the second floor and 11 feet on the first floor. Since the house was built in the 1870s, consulting the original contractor is out of the question. But from Internet research and discussion with guests who live in or work on older homes we have a working hypothesis.

The house was constructed for use as a summer home by a well-to-do merchant named Caswell. It’s likely that he had a staff of servants, who probably resided in the smaller, lower-ceilinged rooms up on the third floor. People weren’t quite as tall back in the 19th Century and so seven feet four inches might have seemed like plenty of headroom for the working class.

The second floor was most likely where the owner, his family and any guests might have slept. Nine-foot ceilings are pretty standard for that era as long as your name wasn’t Vanderbilt and your budget wasn’t unlimited. At that height you can hang a candelabra without coming too close to a fashionable lady’s hairdo. The second floor rooms all had transoms above the doors to vent hot air into the hall and out the third floor windows. The working transoms are long gone (and would be a violation of fire codes anyway) but the spaces are occupied by pretty stained glass panels executed by Seely's mom.

So why those lofty 11-footers down on the first floor? We think that’s because most of the entertaining was done at ground level. Fancy dinners, perhaps a music recital or even a formal ball might have been held on the premises. In that pre-AC era, an 11-foot ceiling would allow the warm air from such activities to rise and be whisked outside by the tall windows, several of which reach to within a foot or so of the ceilings.

That’s our theory, and we’re standing by it until someone offers us hard evidence to the contrary.

Monday will mark the debut of our new blog featurette, "Monday Memories" in which we will pull out the old photos and regale you with horror stories from the years gone by. This is the Inn's tenth year