The Fourth of July crowds arrived last week with a vengeance - clogging ferry lines, buses and the hospital emergency room - but remained a bit cautious at the cash register.
The economic analysis from the front lines is decidedly mixed. A few businesses enjoyed a steady cash flow in the spring months, while most appeared to suffer the effects of poor weather, the cold temperatures and rain that dominated May and June.
The shift in weather and the impending holiday weekend rejuvenated the economic condition of the ailing shopkeepers, but the overall assessment is simple: Things are better but not great.
"It's a very soft season. The only people who are doing extremely well are people selling products at bargain deals," said Renee Balter, executive director of the Oak Bluffs Association.
"People are staying in places that are not too expensive and dining in places they can afford," she added. "People are just watching every penny. It's a very tight season, and I don't think it's going to loosen up."
One up-Island shop owner who sells take-out food said, "I'm way down from last year's numbers." He blamed high prices on the Island for driving away middle-income tourists.
"The Island has just become a destination for people with a lot of cash," he said. "It's too expensive to come here."
Like most any July Fourth weekend, tourists made landfall on the Vineyard. Bonanza Bus ran extra buses down from Boston to Woods Hole for the holiday weekend. The Martha's Vineyard Hospital emergency room broke a record last Saturday, treating 104 people in a 24-hour period.
Sidewalks in the down-Island towns were jammed with shoppers, but there were also other indicators telling a different story.
"There were moorings available in Edgartown on the Fourth of July. I've never seen that before," said Paul Watts, a sailor and a banker who runs the lending office at Compass Bank in Vineyard Haven. "We went out to eat, and there were a couple of tables that weren't full. On the Fourth of July, that's unheard of."
No wonder that some merchants have adopted a wait-and-see attitude about the summer economy as a whole.
"It definitely didn't have the boom-and-bust feel that the Fourth of July normally has. It was just steady," said Laurie Welch, a veteran retailer in Oak Bluffs who owns two clothing stores, Basics and Eastaway. "If it keeps up, things will be fine. We definitely took a hit in the spring. Whether we can make it up with the rest of the summer is a question."
If sales are lackluster, business people are blaming the recession combined with bad weather and imperfect weather forecasts.
"We are looking at a prolonged weak economic climate nationwide … and on the Vineyard, we're largely driven by disposable income," said Robert Skydell, owner of Offshore Ale in Oak Bluffs. "People seem to be very price-conscious, gravitating toward less expensive things on the menu."
"People had a good shot in the arm that's lasted through this week," said Mr. Watts. "But one good week does not a summer make."
Mr. Watts faulted the television weather news beamed out of Boston for predicting rain and keeping tourists at bay. "The Boston weather people are hurting us," he said. "It's almost with glee that they report it's going to rain, and then we have a sunny day here."
Competition for customers is also fierce as the number of retail outlets and restaurants has proliferated in all the business districts.
"A tremendous amount of business owners are vulnerable. There are so many businesses, so many choices that it's watered down," said Mr. Skydell. "The business centers are saturated."
Maybe that's one reason why Alley's General Store appears immune to some of the rough times facing other enterprises. In the village of West Tisbury, they have almost no competition.
"We had a slow start because of the cold, wet June," said Alley's general manager Jack Mackay. "But suddenly everything broke up like a dam, and we have been cranking ever since and more so than in years past."
But Mr. Mackay offered another observation that speaks to an Island economy defined by the demographics of who can still pony up the money for a summer vacation on Martha's Vineyard.
"There was more money here early on, fewer ordinary day-trippers, fewer people from a certain economic level coming to the Vineyard, those people who couldn't afford Martha's Vineyard," he said.
Like the take-out food vendor who pointed to the high cost of an Island holiday, Mr. Mackay speculated that the tourists left standing are the ones from higher income brackets.
"There's another economic group that seems to have no problem here," said the general store manager.
On the surface, that notion seems to run counter to the shop owners who observed tourists eyeing the bargains and low-priced meals on the menu.
But there are signs that the high end of the Island economy is humming. "We haven't been affected much by the slowdown in the economy," said Christian Thornton, chef-owner of Atria, an upscale restaurant in Edgartown.
The Island wedding industry is still booming, he said, fueling a substantial part of his business. "People are still coming here, still celebrating and buying a wonderful bottle of wine," he said.
To be sure, most business owners were breathing a sigh of relief this week, happy to see warm bodies on the sidewalks and in their stores. All up and down Main street Vineyard Haven - at the Bunch of Grapes Bookstore, LeRoux Home, Bramhall & Dunn - shoppers were out in force.
Back up in West Tisbury, Mr. Mackay said, "We just add and add to the inventory. We're just buying, and sometimes it's absolutely terrifying when you have to spend a huge sum of money hoping they will come. Well, they've come."