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BALANCING ACT: Gwenyfar makes plans to sustain business during the Front Street Enhancement Project

Bijou Park will be rebuilt in 2020 as part of the Front Street Enhancement Project. Photo by Shea Carver

Bijou Park will be rebuilt in 2020 as part of the Front Street Enhancement Project. Photo by Shea Carver

 

When I was little my mother used to complain she never got to enjoy having every room in her house clean at the same time. As a kid and teenager, I didn’t understand that statement at all.

Now, I do.

It takes about a week to get to a point that all of the public parts of the house are clean at the same time. However, it does not include parts that are off limits to our bed-and-breakfast guests—which wind up being a dumping ground for all stuff moved out of the other areas. Yet for one day, it does feel sparkly and like a work of art.

“So one year into this, what have we learned? What do we know now that we didn’t know before?” I asked.

“Shower curtains.”

Rachel shook her head and we both laughed because somehow we have replaced three shower curtains in the same bathroom in less than a year. 

A year ago last week, Rachel—who has worked with me at the bookstore for many years—moved over to working at Between the Covers Literary Bed and Breakfast. We were in the last crazy month of trying to finalize details and get ready for a variety of walk-throughs and inspections in order to open. Though we have had The Top Shelf Loft above the bookstore open as a nightly rental for several years, the B&B was going to be different. Frankly, we didn’t know what to expect … except for a lot of cleaning. And panic. Panic seemed reasonable.

We decided once Rachel’s kids were back in school, she would start coming to me in the mornings after dropping them off. Then she would leave early afternoon to pick them up. In the meantime, we would clean and do meal prep for incoming guests.

I mean, we hoped we would have guests. Really, we didn’t know.

I was painting the front porch in the almost debilitating humidity leading up to Hurricane Florence; Rachel was trying to make sense of the kitchen. We opened the second week of October—a white-knuckle week. We had reservations for the weekend, but hadn’t yet passed all our inspections to officially open the doors. With four hours before our first guest arrived, we got our last clearance.

We opened at a time when lodging became a premium in the area: many hotels, B&Bs and motels were damaged by Florence. Others were unavailable because they were housing out-of-state relief workers. 

Our first night of guests was rough. Really rough. One group’s payment method declined and then they were not paying attention to their messages. We were short-handed at the bookstore, and I was the only one able to do The Literary Walking Tour on Saturdays, so trying to maneuver getting everything and everyone settled was an adventure.

Another couple staying at the B&B had a screaming fight that started at a little past 12:30 a.m. and included the refrain ”I hate you.” I was laying on half a couch wondering why I was away from Jock and the dogs for this.

Four-and-a-half years of renovation and work and effort for this? I thought.

No one ate breakfast that first morning. They were all too hungover, and the guy from the screaming couple refused to come down at all.

Well, the only place to go is up, right?

Since then, I have gotten a real(ish) bed and we haven’t had another loudly disagreeing couple, thank heavens (though we did have one group of Marine officers I personally hope to never see again). We had a 50th wedding anniversary party, a family reunion and a lot of first anniversaries. It has been a tremendously special year.

Dagmar Cooley made it possible to serve blueberries at breakfast from the garden. She and her crew from Dagmar’s Designs truly have transformed the gardens into enchantment.

Oh, and did I mention we also lost three shower curtains during the course of the year?

About a month ago, Rachel asked me if we were going to start working on repairing and decorating the last big bedroom and bathroom suite to open. I already purchased the king-size head and footboards, so it was a logical question. Clearly, some work was on the horizon.

“Rachel, the linens alone for that room are going to cost close to $4,000,” I answered. “Eighteen sets of really nice towels.”

I started counting on my fingers.

“Three sets of king-size bed linens, including at least two comforters, two velour blankets, the same for a double fold-out bed and a roll-away cot.” 

“Shower curtain,” she added with a giggle.

“Yes, shower curtain, three bathmats … it adds up fast. So, yes, but slowly and as money becomes available. I am still paying off the money borrowed from Florence.”

What we need to talk about next is getting ourselves ready to face the Front Street Enhancement Project. Phase two is looking like it will get underway in January 2021, which will encompass taking up the street to update the water, sewer and electrical. The sidewalks, curbs and street will get completely revamped; unfortunately, the existing trees will get cut down and replaced.

The bookstore was still in the first block of North Front Street during phase one. Frankly, it looked like a prison camp with a chain-link fence and gravel pit from edge to edge. I have been worrying about phase two since we moved into our new location on North Front beside the Waffle House. Now, when I walk down Front Street, I try to make sure each of the trees gets a little extra love and attention because believing I have less than a year and half left with each of them is tough.

Losing them will be hard, but right now we are trying to get the pieces in place for the bookstore to survive that phase of construction. In January 2020 the rebuild of Bijou Park, one building over from us, will commence. At the city’s public presentation about the process last Wednesday, they assured that, aside from delivery of materials, the sidewalks and street should not get shut down during the four months they plan to work on it.

“OK, I know you are going to roll your eyes at the next question, but there is a tree right here in front of the park.”

I pointed at a map.

“Is that going to get cut down or will it survive?”

The message was the tree should survive the Bijou Park rebuild, but would come down with the rest of the trees during the Front Street Enhancement Project. Looking at these looming deadlines—Bijou Park, Front Street Enhancement, and finishing the last room at the bed and breakfast—I’m trying to get a long-term plan together for keeping our little ship afloat through these next two years.

There are so many difficult obstacles about small business: learning to say no to all the things you want to say yes to is at the top of the list. Perhaps the scariest one is figuring out how to see a long-range plan when trying to piece it together, day-to-day.

We can’t plan for hurricanes or ice storms. But we can hire great people to spend our days with and together make scary moments feel less intense. Those people help make our decisions worthwhile, too. I just hope, as a larger community conversation unfolds about what our city will look like in two or 10 years, that trees and public art will not be left in the gutter. If anything, the last 15 years with small business has taught me the things that don’t fit on the balance sheet make the whole process worthwhile. Frequently, they are things that collectively make the balance sheet possible.

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