Walter and Steve
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Walter Beinecke called it enlightened self-interest, the idea that whatever was good for Nantucket was good for his business. In the 1970s, his business was buying up a great deal of downtown. He liked to say it is better to serve steak and wine to 50 people for $20, than to serve hot dogs and beer to 100 people for $5.
Stephen Karp now owns the properties that Beinecke once used to remake Nantucket into his own business model. He has taken the equation a step further. The new ideal seems to be that it is better to serve gourmet food to 25 people for $1,000 each.
One large order of self-interest, hold the enlightenment.
Lost in both equations is the guy who just wants to buy a hot dog not only for himself but for his wife and kids. Ignored by the bean-counter mentality is the guy who wants to enjoy a little time eating a meal in a place where most of the people at other tables know him, and where the atmosphere is so relaxed that the people who don’t know anybody feel like they know everybody.
Walter and Steve left the Atlantic Café’s wing night out of their equations. Walter is said to have hinted at it. Certainly, he had an affection for this place. Not everybody cared to be the object of that affection, and people took to wearing “Ban the B” and “No Man is an Island” buttons. Today what counts to downtown’s largest landlord seems to be a pure and simple return on investment.
A friend of mine who understands business much better than I ever will, likes to say that people are in business to make money and that is all. Let the chips fall where they may. Nothing personal.
What is good for the bottom line, however, is not always good for community. One wonders why Steve does not take a page from Walter’s book and at least pretend to care.
John O’Connor stood in front of the A.C. one afternoon last week, at the intersection of business and community. He is a man who has always seemed born into the bartending trade. After doing just that at the A.C., he bought the joint. For 19 years John and his wife Kate have run a classic island place.
It is the kind of place where you take your kid for lunch when they are in elementary school, they meet their friends for wing night there during high school, and they stop by to hang out when they turn 21. They serve food at the A.C., but mostly they fill the need for shared moments. Just a few moments over a couple of beers and a sandwich, to read the newspaper and maybe strike up a conversation.
John and Kate are business people who enjoy being part of the community as much as they enjoy making money. Wing night, prime rib night, charity events, they are only the beginning. They run a bar and grill that is a comfortable mix of regulars and tourists, parents and kids, old people having lunch and working guys grabbing a sandwich and a beer. That kind of place does not happen by accident.
One reader of this blog described the A.C. perfectly, as a place where the raw fall and winter weather fell away the moment you opened the door and stepped inside. She is not the only one who feels that way and who wonders where they will go now to find that warmth.
And when a place like that is forced to close its doors, even those among us who have never walked into the place are touched. Because things in town cannot help to be different without that informal gathering place.
There is a sociologist named Ray Oldenburg who writes about the need for those places where we can in his words, “construct the infrastructures of human relationship.” I take that to simply mean the everyday chance to rub shoulders with your neighbors.
If I have written about Oldenberg’s ideas before, it is only because the changes in life here sometimes seem like a movie based on his work. One of his ideas is that when certain places become a strand in the fabric of community, it has less to do with the building itself and more to do with the merchants who run it.
Oldenberg writes about the importance of “mom-and-pop” business owners who personally know the people who walk in the door, who understand the arc of their lives, and who give a damn about the place where they do business.
In the case of local restaurants, he says that too often they are replaced by places “where turnover is high and ‘wasting time’ with customers in discouraged. No matter how bad the weather, letting people in the door before the appointed time is unthinkable and so is adjusting the menu to local tastes.”
I’ve got hard cash to bet on which kind of place will someday be in business where the A.C. is now. Not too long ago the Tap Room at the J.C. House was a great place to wander into on a cold winter day. Then that place changed hands. It will never again be what it once was. Those same hands are pushing out the A.C.
The question is, what can any of us do about it?
–John Stanton is a filmmaker and writer on Nantucket.