Fair price, good service, & plenty of laughs

Clarence "Trip" Barnes. Photo by Ralph Stewart
As auctioneer at high-profile fundraisers, Trip works hard to get the highest bid. Photo by Ralph Stewart

By Julian Wise - January 19, 2006

Clarence "Trip" Barnes has become a living institution on Martha's Vineyard, famous for his larger-than-life antics in the trucking business and on the auction podium. As the Island's premier auctioneer at charity fundraisers he's raised hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years for various Island causes. With his razor wit and irascible charm he's become a master at coaxing dollars from donors with sly finesse.

Mr. Barnes exudes an effortless blend of warmth, wit, and strong opinion that would make him a natural candidate for small town mayor. From Steamship Authority policies to affordable housing, he's candid with his ideas for improvements. With his large frame, gregarious nature, and weathered good looks, he conducts himself with a blend of genteel manners and roguish charm.

Born in New York City, Mr. Barnes spent his childhood shuttling between Manhattan and Chappaquiddick. His namesake grandfather, Clarence Barnes, was the attorney general for Massachusetts and his father, Clarence Jr., was an advertising executive and illustrator in New York City. In his early teen years the youngest Clarence started scrapping for extra cash as a farm laborer. At 15 he was driving a milk truck for the MV Cooperative Dairy.

Clarence "Trip" Barnes. Photo by Steve Rodgers
Mover and shaker Trip takes time out beside one of his vans. Photo by Steve Rodgers

"There was a lot of opportunity here," he reminisces. "I wasn't a carpenter, plumber, or electrician, but I knew my way around. I wanted any excuse to make a living here."

Business is born
While working at the old Ford Garage he purchased his first truck for $250. He hustled hauling work around the Island and started making trucking runs to New York City. When times became lean in the winter he spent several years splitting his time between Martha's Vineyard and Manhattan, where he worked for Time Life as a mail sorter, truck dispatcher, and head reference filer. Whether running furniture to and from the Island or rushing to meet press deadlines, he was in perpetual motion. "I always made myself a job," he says.

The famous painted school buses with the Barnes logos on the side came about during a Labor Day mishap in the 1960s when one of his trucks broke down. He pressed school bus contractor Bob Bailey to sell him an unused bus, which Mr. Barnes stripped of its seats to make a flatbed hauler. This led to a fleet of painted buses that Mr. Barnes estimates has numbered between 50 and 75 over the decades.

Clarence "Trip" Barnes. Photo by Ralph Stewart
The ubiquitous Trip Barnes, spotted at the recent retirement party for Peter Bettencourt, Edgartown Town Administrator, at the Harbor View Hotel. Photo by Ralph Stewart

Over the years Mr. Barnes has hauled groceries around the Island, fish to the mainland, and household goods around the country. The backbone of the business has remained furniture moving.

As interstate commerce rules became increasingly stringent, he played fast and loose with the rules on numerous occasions. "For every law that's made, there's a law that circumvents that law," he notes. "You did what you had to do to make a living."

He's had his share of disputes with the Town of Tisbury and the Steamship Authority. He's resigned from the Tisbury Business Association and the Martha's Vineyard Chamber of Commerce over disagreements with their decisions.

He professes irritation with Steamship Authority policies that let trucks languish in standby lines when they have business to conduct. He points out that his grandfather wrote the original SSA charter and says, "People seem to forget that in the original charter, it was 'goods and services for the residents of Martha's Vineyard.' It doesn't say anything about the tourists or johhny-come-latelys. When you see a truck in the standby line, it costs $50 an hour for the truck to be there. The trucks should go first."

Face of Island philanthropy
Over the years one of his sidelines, auctioneering, has turned into a high-profile activity that's made him a visible face of Island philanthropy. He was encouraged to take up the podium by the late Timothy Chilton, a stockbroker who pioneered the "unbuyable opportunity auction" with celebrities Vance Packard and Mike Wallace. Mr. Barnes developed his trademark auction patter, peppered with spontaneous off-the-cuff comments and good-natured ribbing of audience members.

"I really enjoy doing it," he says. "Most of the people I sell to, I sold them a car, delivered milk to them, moved their furniture. The key to a successful auction is knowing the people in the crowd, knowing who's donated the stuff, knowing the charity and what they're trying to do with the money."

He singles out Hospice of Martha's Vineyard, Sail Martha's Vineyard, and The Preservation Trust as favorite causes.

"The Preservation Trust has saved the face of the town of West Tisbury," he says. "They don't get enough credit for it."

Mr. Barnes was a critical factor in establishing The Vineyard House, the safe haven for Islanders recovering from addiction. It was a personal cause for Mr. Barnes, who has spent many years informally coaching many of his employees through substance abuse recovery.

"I figured that if I kept them right with me working 24 hours a day they wouldn't have a chance to drink or raise too much hell, and they would realize they could get along without it," he says. "I had a great deal of success."

In the early stages of The Vineyard House, Mr. Barnes helped donors find a suitable piece of property, talked the seller's price down, removed asbestos, renovated the building, soothed nervous neighbors, and goosed along the permit and inspection process. He was the first president of the organization and continues to support its mission.

"It's there, it's in place, and you can get help there."

As a self-described "bible-thumping member of AA," Mr. Barnes recalls his own struggles with recovery. "I knew I could make more money and have a better time if I sobered up. It wasn't easy. AA is the only thing that works if you want to get straight. It takes a lot of hard work and desire to do it."

He believes the Vineyard House continues to receive community support because Islanders recognize the ubiquity of substance abuse. "I don't think you can name one family on Martha's Vineyard that doesn't have somebody in it somewhere that doesn't abuse alcohol or drugs," he says. "It's terrible but it's true."

Successful surgery
Last year Mr. Barnes underwent quadruple-bypass surgery and aortic reconstruction. After a recovery period, he went straight back to his rigorous work schedule. He's stopped smoking, but lays his hands on his rounded midsection and declares he needs to lose 35 pounds. "It's one more job I have to do," he says.

Barnes Trucking remains the center of his universe, and while he's in his 60s, retirement remains a distant concept.

"I work, and I enjoy my work," he says. "It's gambling, putting the pieces together so that everything will go smoothly, that the drivers will do a good job, that you get enough money with the changes in the price of fuel, the expenses of the trucks, the high costs of insurance and labor, that you can still give someone a fair price and provide a good service."

Through his philanthropic activities, Mr. Barnes has cultivated a vast reservoir of affection and appreciation from the community. Hospice administrator Terre Young says Mr. Barnes has been a critical asset to their fundraising efforts at the annual Summer Soiree.

"The best remark I have heard about Trip at the Soiree was from the husband of one of our volunteers," she says. "He said, 'I hope, like everyone here, that Hospice is still around when it's my turn, and I have a special request. Please send Trip instead of the nurses or volunteers. I want to spend my last days laughing.'"