Menemsha’s fish-market Brigadoon reappears for the summer

For Betsy Larsen and family, the daily sprint in the seasonal marathon begins in May and ends in October.

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The Larsens' showcase, full of fresh fish and shellfish and ready for the season. — Photo by Michael Cummo

Even though it was late Sunday afternoon, customers were still crowding into Larsen’s Fish Market, and proprietor Betsy Larsen had been working all day. She was still wearing a big smile with her long green apron.

Deftly shucking oysters and clams in the tiny kitchen, while another staffer steamed lobsters and dished out chowder, Ms. Larsen cheerfully greeted new customers and chatted with old friends.

While not everyone looks forward to the busy summer tourist deluge, for Betsy Larsen, it’s one more reason to smile. She’s happy to see the first customer come through that swinging door in May.

“I’m always excited. That’s why we’re here. If not for the customers, we wouldn’t be here,” said Ms. Larsen, who has run the popular family business for some 36 years, beginning when she was only 19.

Menemsha has come alive for the season over the past few weeks, and Larsen’s is front and center, right on Dutcher Dock, steps from the beach. Louis and Mary Larsen began the business in 1969. Their daughter Betsy began working there at 14, and hasn’t stopped since.

“I was afraid to reach in the tank and pick up a lobster,” Ms. Larsen laughed. “But I learned quick.”

She started out doing retail sales behind the counter. By a year later she was shucking, a skill she’d learned by watching it being done for years.

“Once you know the technique, it’s just practice,” she said, making the precision moves sound easy. She estimated that in midsummer, kitchen workers shuck a bushel of clams and 300 oysters each day.

Years after it began, Larsen’s remains a truly family enterprise. Ms. Larsen counts her sister Kristine Scheffer, her cousins Karsten, Brigida, and Scott Larsen (“one of the fastest oyster shuckers I’ve ever seen”), and even her great-nephew Matteus Scheffer among the store staff. Her cousin Stephen Larsen is a lobsterman, as is her husband, Robert Sloane, who also files catch reports required by the state. Other family members lend a hand when needed.

“They always step in,” Ms. Larsen said. “I’m very fortunate.”

Ms. Larsen said the main change she makes at the business from year to year is hiring new young summer workers to keep the store fully staffed with 8 or 9 people per shift at the height of summer.

This year for the first time she will employ four students from other countries – Jamaica, Moldavia, and Serbia — counting on their ability to work into the fall while local students return to college in August.

Preparation for the season starts about two weeks before opening, although this year’s winter chill hung on so long it was too cold to work, and the crew got a late start. The small wooden building, shut down all winter, must be aired out, scrubbed, and freshly painted, and equipment checked. This year, possibly because of the harsh winter, equipment failures caused a water leak and forced the business to replace two compressors.

Despite weather delays and equipment issues, Larsen’s opened only two days behind schedule, on Saturday, May 2, attracting many customers. Ms. Larsen customarily opens on a Thursday to make sure everything is working smoothly by the weekend, but she was delighted with the busy first day.

Ordering food, especially in springtime, cannot be done far in advance, because business is so dependent on Menemsha’s changeable weather, Ms. Larsen said.

Customer favorites from the kitchen are lobsters, steamers, mussels, the raw bar, and lobster rolls — both cold salad and hot buttered. Customers love the freshly prepared bluefish pâte, tuna spread, and lobster salad from the cooler. In the fish case, swordfish, tuna, and Vineyard sole are bestsellers, with bluefish and striped bass Iater in the season.

Asked what fish she most enjoys selling, Ms. Larsen thought for a moment.

“I love to cut a nice swordfish steak,” she said, breaking into a bright grin.

One of the most unusual requests came from a private chef from Spain, on the Island for the summer. He twice ordered a five-pound octopus. Ms. Larsen gladly complied, having the hefty cephalopods shipped in.

“I never met a fish I didn’t like,” laughed Ms. Larsen when asked about her personal favorites. “I love a good piece of bluefish, I like striped bass. I’m a big swordfish eater, scallops and tuna too. I love lobster. I like yellowtail flounder because it’s so sweet.”

Ms. Larsen said when spring is on the way, she looks forward to the approaching business season. “I never dread it. I’m usually excited. But I always find I didn’t get all the projects done at home I was supposed to do over the winter. Needless to say, they’ll go on the back burner until next year.”

And in October when the last patron leaves?

“I’m sad. I go into the end of the season with mixed feelings. I’m sad, but I’m excited because I don’t have to be in one place, and I don’t have to think about the store all the time.”

Ms. Larsen is grateful she can take the winter off, except for an occasional short stint at her brother Louis’s Vineyard Haven market, The Net Result. “But it takes awhile to wind down after you go and go all summer.”

Once summer gets underway, Ms. Larsen works virtually nonstop. The store stays open until 7 pm, “and we don’t turn people away.” She admits it keeps her from other activities.

“I haven’t been to the fair in 13 years,” she said. “But I try to take at least part of one day off every week — for my mental health.”

What is the best part of her job?

“It’s making the people happy,” Ms. Larsen said with no hesitation. “I love the interaction with the customers. I definitely love that. Seeing a lot of familiar faces. A lot of people have been customers of the store for years. Now I’ve got their children and their grandchildren. That’s kind of fun.”

I just don’t know why they’re all getting older and I’m not,” she quipped. “It must be all that seafood I eat!”

And the worst part? “Cleaning up at the end of the night,” she chuckled, sponge in hand as she wiped down the counter.

“This isn’t too bad of a place to work,” she said, with a wide gesture at her surroundings. “My kitchen sink looks out over the harbor. It doesn’t make the dishes any more fun to wash.”

“I hope we have an uneventful summer,” Ms. Larsen reflected. “No catastrophes, no tragedies. I just want everyone to be happy and have a good time when they come here.”