The store wasn’t open, like so many on the island of Nantucket toward the end of March, so after a minute or two of examining the clothes in the window we turned and started to walk back to the house. Then, we heard a voice: “Would you like to come in?” Turning around, we saw a large great dane pulling a striking young woman to the door, who, it turned out, was the owner of Isobel and Cleo. Her name is Charlotte Hess, and she put her key into the lock and welcomed us into the store, almost as cheerful about our arrival as was Frankie, the dane.
Rosalie tried on clothes and I chatted with Charlotte for a few minutes while asking how she manages to make money selling unique clothes on an island with such high rents. She showed me how they weave their items, one at a time, on simple old machines that require a great deal of muscle, and she told me how difficult it is to find housing during the summer months. A friend of hers arrived, a young man who was helping her assess how to best grow her business. “Oh, perfect timing, there’s Justin,” said Charlotte.
A few minutes later, Rosalie was done pouring through clothes and was ready to get on the move. “We’d love to go visit Bartlett Farm, would you guys like to take us?” she asked the two, who we had known for a matter of minutes. Since neither of them had planned on having us take over their lives, they politely demurred, but Justin offered us his car. “Take it and enjoy,” he said. “I don’t need it today.”
And off we went in his beat-up old VW with no door locks and a front end that groaned in misery at speeds approaching 40, laughing over the “Delicious Encounters,” as Rosalie likes to call them, that sometimes occur when taking our laissez-faire approach to travel. Surely, we’ve missed some great opportunities because we don’t plan in advance and ignore most “tourist attractions,” but we are more engaged by the lives being lived now than those that were lived long ago.
We found a tow-truck driver about to pull away with a vintage Range Rover on the hook, and he said he’d lead us in the direction of Barlett Farm. We were delighted when he jumped out at a stop sign, ran back to us and patiently described the last mile of our journey as if he worked for the Chamber of Commerce.
Bartlett Farm was too touristy and over-priced to have much appeal, so we continued down the road toward Siaconset, where we have enjoyed wonderful meals at the Summer House restaurant in past years. It was interesting – a wholly different experience – to see the restaurant and surrounding properties boarded up for the season, but there was something sad about it too. As if the sparkling Nantucket of summer is nothing more than Revere Beach in disguise (circa 1962).
Back to town we drove, stopping at the Nantucket Culinary Center, an amazing new food concept that takes all of a three-story building at the corner of Federal and Broad Streets in downtown. Walk down a few steps from the street and you’re in a delightful coffee shop called the Corner Table that serves sandwiches and salads, as well as prepared foods for take-home.
Visit the second floor and you’ll find a cooking school, go up one more and you’re in a community center and function room. All three floors, part of the same enterprise, are beautifully outfitted with state of the art equipment – an obviously expensive proposition that must be the toy of a rich man, we decided.
But we ran into co-owner Greg Margolis as we explored the premises, and he explained that he didn’t pay for the development of the building. “The investment is not mine,” he said, “except for the money needed to operate the business. I’ve won the restaurateur’s lottery,” Margolis admitted as we examined the lavishly appointed facilities. The build-out was paid for by his landlord, an organization called ReMain Nantucket, which is buying downtown properties, rejuvenating them and turning them over to tenants who commit to staying open during all seasons.
“One of the best things about Nantucket is the sense that the year-round world and the summer world overlap,” explained Melissa Philbrick, the executive director of ReMain Nantucket. “There isn’t a summer versus winter dynamic in our projects, they’re meant to encourage the bridge between the two.
While ReMain is the Nantucket Culinary Center’s landlord, the money behind ReMain comes from the Wendy and Eric Schmidt Foundation. Eric Schmidt is the executive chairman of Google parent Alphabet, said to be the 138th richest man in the world – worth $11 billion. His wife Wendy started ReMain. This is the kind of money that flows through Nantucket Sound.
The next night, we hosted Charlotte and Justin for dinner at the lovely home we were staying in a few minutes walk from downtown. We invited them partly to say thank you for the loan of the car and to embrace two exciting young people, but also because this is our idea of how to do tourism – we explored the island through the people we met there.
Justin Taylor, it turns out, is 24 years old and has only been on Nantucket for seven months. Already, though, he’s deeply immersed in island life. While the Schmidts seem to be engaging in upper-class, cocktail party activism with their non-profit, Justin is focused on advocating for the needs of young people who are vital to the island’s tourist economy but for whom finding a way to survive – like scoring housing for the summer – is tough. The average house on Nantucket sells for about $2 million, but even worse, the summer rental market is so strong that landlords can make more during tourist season, renting at rates of thousands of dollars a week, than they can collect from a year-long tenant.
Justin has started a support group of sorts called “Young Creatives,” a weekly meeting of folks in their 20s, 30s and early 40s who might be artists or creative business people. “The idea is to build the island that we want to live on, or to make it so we can live on this island.”
Sometimes the group focuses on creative activities, like listening to an inspirational talk, and every other week they have brainstorming sessions. “This Thursday, we have our first Think Tank, and the first topic is affordable housing with a focus on the needs of our demographic. Are we looking to rent homes or buy homes? Is there a way we can collectively tackle this problem?”
There are 40 people signed up for the next meeting, which Justin’s excited about. “This is not an event about drinking or going out; it’s an event based on tackling a problem on Nantucket, and there’s enough people thinking about it that they’re willing to come out and meet on a Thursday night to talk about it.”
The challenge is very real. Justin’s friend, Charlotte, the shopkeeper, is one of the regulars at Young Creatives. Finding a home for her and Frankie during the off-season isn’t a problem, but for summer, when Isobel and Cleo will be selling high-end hand-made clothes to the wealthiest of Americans, Charlotte is considering options at the other end of the spectrum from the six figures she is presumably paying to rent the store. And she needs to find housing for workers, too.
This is our idea of tourism – instead of traveling to see the houses where past figures may have lived or streets they may have walked, we visit history as it’s being made and learn about it in real time.