From the Ashes

They were ready. Austin Racine and Katrina Yekel, who had bought the Cafe Moxie restaurant on Main street in Vineyard Haven in May, were prepared to work sixty-three straight days — all of July and August — to survive and succeed in their business, to make money during the Vineyard’s all-too short summer season, to help realize the dream that they both held so dearly.

To Mr. Racine and Ms. Yekel, who had met at the restaurant at the start of the summer of two thousand three, when she took a second job in the kitchen and he already was in his second year as executive chef, Cafe Moxie was almost like home. They knew the small, wood-frame building inside and out. “We know what to do downstairs and what to close when it gets cold,” Ms. Yekel told the Gazette, which had arranged to cover the couple with periodic news stories during their first season of operating Cafe Moxie.

The newspaper containing Ms. Yekel’s words still was coming off the press at the Gazette on the morning of Friday, the Fourth of July, when Mr. Racine, who was in the Cafe Moxie kitchen, smelled smoke. It was shortly after nine o’clock. Tisbury firefighters responded to the alarm.

But it was too late for the Cafe Moxie. Within thirty minutes, the cafe was gutted, the windows were blown out and the roof was starting to collapse.

By Friday afternoon, the building had come down into a pile of charred, smoking embers.

Trouble loomed for the Bunch of Grapes, the landmark Vineyard Haven bookstore that shared a common wall with the cafe. Firefighters from Tisbury and across the Island apparently were able to save the building. But the bookstore suffered serious structural damage, and smoke and water seriously damaged the books that filled the Bunch of Grapes shelves and that literally constitute the business’s stock in trade.

The effect of the Cafe Moxie fire rippled out beyond the restaurant and the bookstore next door. On one of the busiest, perhaps the busiest, retail day of the year on the Island, Main street in Vineyard Haven was shut down. The day of the fire could not have been worse. Many Island businesses count on the summer and especially holiday weekends such as the Fourth of July for survival. In an already shaky economy on and off-Island, the loss of even one day’s business could prove fatal.

But though the Fourth of July fire cast a pall of gloom over Vineyard Haven and the rest of the Island, the event also brought its share of good news.

No one was killed, and only one minor injury was reported. Buildings can be repaired or replaced, and businesses ultimately live in the talent, imagination and intelligence of their owners. The lives of the merchants most directly affected and the firefighters who fought the blaze continue despite Friday’s tragedy.

The timing could have been even worse. The blaze could have broken out hours earlier, in the dead of night, destroying even more buildings along Vineyard Haven’s tightly packed Main street.

The potential for devastation was real. On August eleventh, eighteen eighty three, a fire leveled Vineyard Haven’s Main street in the worst fire the Island ever has seen. On that night, a bucket brigade drawing water from the harbor and hand-drawn fire engines from Oak Bluffs, then Cottage City, could do little to stem the blaze.

But even the most modern technology can do little against a fire with a head start and plenty of raw material. The Cafe Moxie fire started shortly after nine; two and one-one half hours later, despite the presence of the Tisbury fire ladder and a multitude of Island firefighters, the blaze continued to rage.

The best news of all is that Vineyard Haven is undaunted and is ready to rise to the challenge. The Tisbury Street Fair, a celebration of the town’s birthday that annually draws throngs to Main street in Vineyard Haven, will take place today as scheduled.

This year’s fair will have a purpose beyond the good-natured ambiance that usually characterizes the event: to raise money for those affected by the Fourth of July fire. The Tisbury selectmen have held two emergency meetings since Friday, among other things calling on the generosity of Island residents, businesses and visitors to come to the fair and donate what they could. While the fire was still smoldering Doug Johnson, the owner of Kennedy Studios, had already set up a donation box outside the Bunch of Grapes.

Tisbury fire chief John Schilling, who was on the front lines fighting Friday’s fire, testifies to the community spirit already rising in response to the tragedy.

When the fire department arranged to turn off the power on Main street as a safety measure during the fire, it effectively killed business for the day for every store.

And yet, Chief Schilling said, “Food and drink were turning up left and right, unsolicited.”

That is the spirit of Vineyard Haven. That is the spirit of the Island. And just as Vineyard Haven rose from smoking, charred embers one hundred and twenty five years ago, so too can the Cafe Moxie and the Bunch of Grapes. Fires can destroy buildings, but they cannot always destroy dreams.