So long, Santander

The Chilmark branch hosts its last art opening.

Potluckers enjoy one another's company.  — Photo by Emily Drazen

On Friday, May 29, Santander will close the Chilmark branch of its bank for good. This past Friday, the ladies at Santander, Kim Klaren and Nikki Lou Youngblood (and Carrie Chhibber, who was unable to attend but was there in spirit), threw one last party to say goodbye to the community that they have served for many years. It was an art opening, like they have done so many times, but with 14 artists represented instead of the usual one or two, and this will, of course, be the last one ever, so it was extra-special. The artists displayed included Donald Widdiss, Aquinnah Witham, Joan LeLacheur, Linda Thompson, Hellie Neumann, and Haiti Peace Quilts. There was art, jewelry, quilts and clothes on every wall, table, and nook of the bank. Kim’s office in the back looked more like a bazaar than a bank office.

While it was a festive and visually rich occasion, it was also tinged with sadness, for the closing will mean the loss of many things, not just a convenient place to bank. The building has been a bank since it opened in the 1960s, and has been holding art exhibits showcasing local artists pretty much since day one. No one could tell me for sure when the first exhibit was; Margaret Maida, who retired 10 years ago after working for the bank for 30 years, said that exhibits were a regular part of the life of the bank when she arrived in the ’70s. Some artists, like Linda Thompson and Lisa Vanderhoop, have had more than 10 shows at the bank. Ms. Vanderhoop told me that for years she did a big Memorial Day show with another artist, Robin Robinson. Lisa’s dad would come from off-Island, and the opening was always special. Many of the exhibits are around the holidays, and people up-Island have come to depend on the bank turning into a craft gallery of sorts, where they can pick up unique gifts for their loved ones, around holidays like Christmas and Valentine’s Day. Ms. Vanderhoop said the tellers of the bank were always so gracious, and never took a commission on anything that was sold.

Many people came to the party prepared to shop. Ms. Thompson sold a painting, Mr. Widdiss sold two pieces of his beautiful jewelry, and people were scooping up items from Haiti Peace Quilts, and those were just the transactions I witnessed. In between bouts of shopping and munching on hors d’oeuvres, guests got caught up with one another and marveled at how grown-up Ms. Klaren’s 14-year-old daughter Kerry was.

Ms. Vanderhoop had many colorful words for Santander and what she thought of their decision to close their Chilmark branch: “There’s two in Edgartown; why not close one of those?” Many people at the party talked of changing banks, because it seems as if Santander is indifferent to the needs of its Island customers, and indeed the timing of the closing seems odd. Why close the branch right before the start of the most lucrative season? I’m sure some Santander customer service representatives are going to get irate phone calls from summer people who will be shocked to find that their local bank branch is no more. The closest full-service branch is in Vineyard Haven; although there is an ATM at Up Island Cronig’s, it is frequently out of order. Ms. Maida, the former manager, said, “They’re [Santander] a big corporate bank, and if you ask me they’ll close the other branches. They have no interest in being here on Martha’s Vineyard.”

If what Ms. Maida said turns out to be true, that is very sad, and a loss for us and for the bank as well. We are somewhat sheltered here on the Island from the big corporate takeover that has enveloped countless small businesses across America in the past several years, but this situation shows how devastating it can be to a community when a local business is bought by a larger global company that has no roots in the place it now serves. Ms. Klaren has worked at the bank for 30 years. She was trained at the age of 19 by Ms. Maida at the Oak Bluffs branch, back when it was still Martha’s Vineyard National Bank. Many customers have watched Ms. Klaren and her family grow during her time at the bank, and remember her daughter being born. Ms. Youngblood has been at the bank for four years, and said definitively when I asked her what she would miss most about the bank, “Kim. Kim’s my best friend. And my customers and their dogs. I love the up-Island community.” Ms. Youngblood has already secured a job with a landscape company; Ms. Chhibber has also gotten another job. Ms. Klaren, not quite ready to retire, will be placed at another post within Santander. When I asked her what she would miss most about the Chilmark branch, she said, “The customers.” And we will miss Kim, Nikki Lou, and Carrie as well.