Islander's Blog

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.

9 Responses to “Walter and Steve”

  1. annie Says:

    indeed, it’s a sad day on nantucket. i have loved nantucket since i first heard the word as a child. today i don’t come very often as it is too sad to see all the destruction in town and out of town. squam road is a disgrace and the greedy developers should be ashamed. waterfront property should be one story only. how to fight back against the loss of establishments such as the atlantic cafe? don’t patronize any business owned by karp. eat at home. and yes, i too will mourn the loss of those blustery march nights when the cafe offered a warm and friendly shelter from the dark. maybe in addition to the land trust there should be a small businees trust set up. what’s next – downeyflake? oh no wait, they are not downtown and so therefore safe for now…

  2. mike Says:

    It won’t be long before there will be no reason to come to town – I live a short walk away, and always thought this was a real advantage, now…not so sure

  3. Karen Says:

    How about finding a building Mr Karp doesn’t own and opening a restaurant in that? The idea is to get back some of the control which this man has over the current downtown. I would love the I and M to print exactly which buildings Mr Karp actually does own beyond the big hotels and wharf area.

  4. annie Says:

    i wonder if town hall could help? it must be on public records. and yes, as a one newspaper town the I&M should step up to the plate on this issue- for a change…

  5. Colleen Says:

    I am sitting here at my computer catching up with my old community, Nantucket. I am truly saddened of this news. It is not unlike why I moved off island so many years ago when I was pregnant and could not afford any rents that summer of 1994. It was the beginning of the end of old Nantucket. I observe such excess, greed, and decadence then. It was sad to see so many peole trying to keep up with these shallow ideals. Nantucket has always been a forcaster of what is to come across the country econmically. We are all in for quite a storm. Ride it out.

  6. rich sullivan Says:

    I’m just a longtime tourist (28 years) but I love Nantucket and have always thought of the Atlantic Cafe as my home away from home. It’s truly sad to see these places disappearing. The folks at the Atlantic were always gracious and friendly.
    We always took all our kids there every summer..a great tradition when they were small..being seated down the back, where we could fit nearly 10 kids, plus adults! I went there with a buddy after secretly buying my then girlfriend her wedding ring at Pattons..I introduced her to the great ambience of the island. That is the the one off the beaten track..shared with us by our friends who live there..honest hard working folks trying to make a living on the island.
    We honeymooned on Nantucket also. We get away to Nantucket as often as possible..despite the rising costs each year.
    The honeymoon may be coming to an end..

  7. Vincent Savage Says:

    I lament the passing of the AC much as I lamented the passings of Cy’s Green Coffe Pot, Robinson’s Five and Ten, Bosun’s Locker, The Sandpiper and The Wauwinet House. Further, I regret the exodus of characters who really made Nantucket unique. In retrospect Walter seems like an enlightened desopt, but he was a despot all the same. It was through Walter that Karp rose to the throne with his marblizing brushes and his pretense. Walter sold to Winthrop, a syndicate of greed and ill manners, and they sold to Karp. Ney Yorkers demand New York wherever they go and Karp is their Head Houseboy. Most businesses resorted to cheap labor to offset their increased rents and taxes and now Nantucket pays a price as a result. The dimestore is out, Ralph laurent is in. What a laugh: Ralph Laurent sells preppie clothes to a traditional New England sailing port.
    I can not offer a solution. I can only urge owners to resist the large payouts offered to them by the money boys. Teach your children the of rare place they call home and do your bit to protect what is unique in this country. Nantucket is worth the fight.

  8. Jane Says:

    I also lament as fellow bloger Vincent does for Cy’s and Robinson’s etc. but mostly I am sad that the old characters of Nantucket have been so marginlised as apear to be homeless instead of just closer to a way of life gifted by the sea. It is through their eyes that Nantucket expressed a since of a living history something Europe seems to be able to hang on too. The american mall mentality has come to Nantucket. I see it expressed in multiple ways; a letter to the editor when it is sugests we can remove an elm tree to make room for easing traffic; in an exterior view of the Whaling Museums new addition with a roof pitch and cupola that replicates the Cape Cod Mall Food Court. This is a mind set that originates from lack of creativity. Why is Ralph Lauren over merchandising his windows as if he is completeing for eyes in a visually busy city scape. This type of formula mentality that imposes insteads of reconising since of place is deadly.

  9. annie Says:

    well everyone! we have a lot to be thankful/hopeful for this thanksgiving. just as before, in the 1800’s, when the whaling industry went belly up, nantucket architecture was left untouched because no one had any money, maybe this bad economy will help to rid nantucket of the parasites which have taken hold of this beautiful island. one can only hope for rescue.

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