It was warm and cloudy this year on the Fourth of July.
And as celebrations got under way, two of Vineyard Haven’s anchor businesses burned. Emergency services shut down power along Main street, cordoning off the heart of downtown. And in the aftermath, business owners commiserated, lent their support to the devastated owners of Café Moxie and Bunch of Grapes Bookstore, and shared fears about a retail season now in jeopardy.
Maria Metters, owner of the Bowl and Board, set up her business as a place of respite for firefighters and emergency workers.
“When I woke up this morning and saw it was cloudy I knew people wouldn’t be going to the beach. I thought, this is going to be a great day for retail. It was, for 15 minutes,” she said.
Elaine Barse, owner of the Green Room, came in to work early on Friday out of excitement and in anticipation of a busy Fourth of July.
“This is so sobering,” she said, “People are shopping a little, but mainly they’re coming into to talk about the fire. Jon’s place [Bunch of Grapes] is the anchor of Main street.” She added:
“It shows how interdependent we are. Disasters bring out interesting responses in people. I’m sure we’ll have fund-raisers. I’m sure as a business community we’ll rally.”
Mary Etherington, owner of Etherington Fine Art, spent half the day in her store and half on the street, consoling fellow merchants.
“We already had a missing tooth in the town’s smile, now both front teeth have been knocked out,” she said Friday, referring to the boarded-up old Murray’s building near the Capawock Theatre and across the street. “It’s a sad thing for Tisbury.”
April Levandsowski, who owns Le Roux at Home on Main street, said that many businesses borrow from the bank to get through the winter; Fourth of July is the first day businesses can balance their books.
“Vineyard Haven did not need to lose a bookstore and a good restaurant. It’s sort of a gallery town now — which is great — but it does need variety to draw a crowd,” she said, adding that the street will inevitably be closed during the reconstruction process.
Loss of business on the day was total for businesses in the direct vicinity of Café Moxie and Bunch of Grapes and considerable across all of Main street.
“The sales volume loss I think is considerable — easily $150,000 in gross sales and that’s conservative,” said Chris Wells, president of the Martha’s Vineyard Savings Bank. Mr. Wells said the bank felt the impact on its cash deposits in Vineyard Haven.
He said there is no doubt that the business owners have taken a direct hit. “It is definitely a loss that can be quantified and cannot be recaptured,” he said, concluding:
“There is also no question that the Tisbury fire department did exactly what it needed to do — gas and power lines had to be shut off and the street had to be shut down. They were there to protect the town and the business owners and they did their job well.”
For Sherman Goldstein, who owns the Mansion House spanning the corner at the head of Main street, Friday was full of reminders of a 2001 fire that devastated the inn which he owns with his wife Susan.
“The day is something of a blur,” he said, “Myriad feelings re-emerged for Susie and I. The feeling is bewilderment and disbelief. Seeing the photos of the restaurant owner, it was an exact duplicate of us seven years ago.” He added:
“You can’t rebuild the building that was there. The codes have changed, the materials are more expensive. You need a new business plan. It’s re-inventing a business,” he said, adding the effects of Friday’s fire will be long-term and Islandwide,
“There will be a ripple effect throughout the local and Island economy. There will certainly be a regional effect from Bunch of Grapes. People come here from all over the Island. It’s one of the finest independent book stores I know of.”
Mocha Mott’s cafe owner Tim Dobel saw polar opposite business results between Vineyard Haven and Oak Bluffs branches.
“Oak Bluffs was one of the busiest July Fourths we’ve ever had. But in Vineyard Haven, Friday was a washout for business,” said Mr. Dobel. He said Fourth of July is generally twice as busy as a normal day, but that the Vineyard Haven cafe was closed for all intents and purposes once the fire broke out. Mr. Dobel spent the day tending perishable products in the fridge and giving out iced coffee and water to firemen.
Echoing the sentiments of many Tisbury businesses, he spoke of a personal attachment to the Bunch of Grapes Bookstore.
“It’s the soul of Vineyard Haven and there’s no replacement. I practically raised my children there. I would go over whenever I needed to clear my head. And coffee goes well with books,” he said.
Ben Hall Jr., whose family owns many of the buildings on Main street, said he spoke to Bunch of Grapes proprietor Jon Nelson while the fire was still burning on Friday, and offered to help if they needed any temporary space.
He said the fire was but the latest contributor to what he called a general economic malaise in Vineyard Haven.
He could neither understand why the selectmen had not moved to lower property tax rates in town, nor why townspeople had defeated a change to the rules on restaurant sales of beer and wine.
He said he was hearing from many clients that they were doing it tough. He feared “a rush for the exits” after the latest setback.
Ironically, the fire was a draw to the town on the weekend, Mr. Hall said.
“It was sort of a twisted thing, I guess, but the town was mobbed by people on Saturday,” he said.
Mrs. Metters painted a bleak picture for Tisbury commerce.
“It was looking promising, it really was. We had a lot of European business of late and people coming here to their second homes rather than going further afield,” she said. Saying the decision of the Steamship Authority to split ferry destinations between Vineyard Haven hurt business, Mrs. Metters wondered whether visitors may now plan their trips around Oak Bluffs.
“We’ve been hit so hard on so many levels,” she said. “Meanwhile we’re the only year-round business town on this Island which makes it even harder.”
The fund raising has already begun in earnest. Doug Johnson, the owner of Kennedy Studios, set up donation box outside the Bunch of Grapes on Friday. Mrs. Metters has a jar by her register. Tonight at the Tisbury Street Fair Austin Racine will host a cookout, either on the patio of the Bowl and Board or in front of the fire site. Gina Stanley, owner of the Artcliff Diner, will make her kitchen available for the evening to Mr. Racine. Selectmen will run a donation booth for both businesses.
As far as long-term rehabilitation plans, it’s all up in the air at this point.
A special meeting between Leslie Hewson, president of the Tisbury business association, Jeff Kristal, chairman of the selectmen and Nancy Gardella, executive director of the chamber of commerce will be held this morning at the Mediterranean restaurant.
“This meeting is something new,” said Mr. Kristal, “We need to do some out-of-the-box thinking. You get two months. We have to figure out a way to keep people coming to this town.”