Hopeful signs business is back in Oak Bluffs


Oak Bluffs merchants are greeting the first stirrings of the summer rush with the usual mix of optimism and caution, keeping one eye on the cash register and one eye on the weather.

Last June’s tourism-crushing rain makes it difficult to judge whether business is on the upswing this year.

“It’s almost impossible to compare,” said Meg Clarke, as she took a break from creating handmade candy at Ben and Bill’s Chocolate Emporium. “It rained constantly. Compared to last year, everything is so much better.”

Ms. Clarke said good weather usually means good business for an ice cream store. “A sunny day can multiply everything tenfold,” Ms. Clarke said. “We can look at our sales year to year and know that it rained this day, and it was sunny that day.”

One change she sees is more school groups visiting the Island. She mentioned one school that usually takes an overnight trip to New Hampshire. This year they opted for a day trip to Martha’s Vineyard. “That’s a whole bus load of kids in here buying ice cream. With the economy, people aren’t going far, they’re staying close.”

Near-perfect weather over the Memorial Day holiday offered an early windfall for many local merchants. “Memorial Day was excellent,” said Stewart Robinson, who owns Smoke ‘N Bones restaurant. “The rest of the time was a little slow, as usual for this time of year.” He senses that the local economy is still tight, with Islanders still watching their budgets closely. “We notice more off-island people coming in than local people.”

Jake Gifford, who owns the Lazy Frog, a leisure gear and clothing store on Circuit Avenue sees business about the same in the early part of the season. He noted the new construction in town. “The construction might have slowed it down a little in May,” Mr. Gifford said. “It was pretty tough to get down those roads. Now it’s just amazing for pedestrian traffic, and with the new steamship terminal, I can only see it bringing in more people. It’s a much nicer facility there.”

Lemonade, a women’s accessories store on Circuit Avenue has only been open a few weeks, but owner Becca Rogers thinks the economy may have turned a corner. “I’m very optimistic,” Ms. Rogers said. “I think people are ready to spend money again, not in huge amounts, conservatively still. They’re looking for deals.”

She keeps an eye on economic indicators other than the retail sector, and those trends were part of the reason she opened a new business this year. “Everything has its cycle, we’ve been in a bad cycle for the last two years, if not longer,” Ms. Rogers said. “I see some trends in the construction business that are indicators of the general trend on the Vineyard. People start building again, they’re freeing up money. There are a lot of people that have money, but just chose not to spend it for the past 18 months. They’re just moving forward with things, and that’s going to trickle down. I still think there’s money to be made here. It certainly would be nice to have a great season, but no matter what, I think it will be a good season.”

Ben Baldwin, who peddles a yellow pedi-cab, was a little less optimistic as he sat waiting for a fare. “Business for us has actually not been all that great,” Mr. Baldwin said. “People just don’t want to spend money.” But he said he sees more and more people every day. “Just kind of waiting for the 4th and the Shark Tournament, things will pick up.”

From his perch behind the ticket counter of Martha’s Vineyard Sightseeing, Dan Flynn said business is booming for bus and trolley tours. “It’s been beyond our expectations,” Mr. Flynn said. “In good times, we get people from the Midwest. In bad times we get people from Rhode Island, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Vermont. This year is exceptional, it doesn’t fit into either mold; we’re getting a lot of foreigners, a lot of people from the Middle East, a lot of people from the British Isles. You hope it never ends, you’re looking at it and saying ‘this can’t last.’ But people are spending money, they are spending money.”

Bob Falkenburg says he is dispensing about the same amount of advice from the yellow information kiosk at the foot of Circuit Avenue. He checks handwritten records documenting the number of people served. “I would say it’s similar,” Mr. Falkenburg said. “Last June was a disaster, this month has been not that bad, so that’s a help. I still find people from different parts of the world and the country, that’s happening. I’m content for the moment, but we’ll find out where the rubber hits the road in July.”