You've heard it before. You've probably even said it before: We live in a disconnected society. We don't know our neighbors, we've become less civil, we'd just as soon be left alone surfing the Web as spend time getting to know others. And for most of us, that's true. I've lived in my house for two years, and I can't tell you the last name of any of my neighbors. My daughter and I can walk to the park, play at the playground, and visit the library without even making eye contact with all the other moms and kids we meet along the way. We've fallen into the trap of keeping to ourselves and not bothering anyone else.
I haven't always lived anonymously. Back in seminary, my husband and I were strong believers in the concept of Christian community. We belonged to a house church, had an open-door policy with the other students in our apartment complex, and rarely ate a meal without a guest or two. Before we were married, Jimmy lived in an intentional community with a professor, his wife, and several other students. We sought to live by the example of Christian community set out in Acts 2:42-47. And we hope to do it again someday. For now, we are in the `burbs, struggling to find friends.
The reality is, there are few opportunities in contemporary America for people to share a friendly conversation over a late-night cup of hot chocolate with someone outside their family. But a growing trend in the hospitality industry is changing all that. Pamela Lanier, author of "The Complete Guide to Bed & Breakfasts, Inns and Guest Houses" (Lanier Publishing), notes that in the 17 years she's been writing the annual guide, the number of B&Bs has risen from 1200 to 25,000. According to Lanier, the rise in B&B properties, like most cultural shifts these days, is due to the aging boomer population. Fiftysomethings want lodging that feels different from corporate hotels.
Fortunately for all those travelers, many of their fellow boomers have given in to the yen to leave middle management and forge a life straight out of Newhart. Take Paul Mueller. He and his wife own and operate the Canfield House in Onekama, Michigan. Looking for a way out of corporate climes, the Muellers spent years searching for a B&B they could purchase. "This is a lifestyle where we can do things for ourselves," Mueller says. "It's a personal business, rather than simply a job. Of course, the days are long and physically demanding, but we love bringing people into our home and making them feel welcome."
B&Bs also hold a unique place in the market. They are perhaps one of the few small business opportunities still viable for the person seeking to be his or her own boss. As Mueller says, the appeal of being an independent business owner is a large motivator in joining the B&B business. And unlike privately owned coffee shops and bookstores, B&Bs are not as yet under threat of the capitalistic vultures that tend to swoop in on any successful venue that can be cookie-cuttered onto every street and strip mall in America. In fact, the very nature of the B&B industry--unique settings, distinctive architecture, that "just-like-home-only-better" environment--make them particularly difficult to homogenize into a chain.
Because they hold such a distinctive place in the hospitality market, B&Bs often bring much-needed income to towns much too small to ever attract a larger chain hotel. Even in those towns large enough to support several hotels, B&Bs provide something essential to community life--tourist dollars. In the small resort town where I grew up, there are four or five chain hotels out by the interstate that serve business travelers. Those folks rarely venture beyond the off-ramp, much less drop any cash into local businesses. But the three B&Bs near the old downtown area bring in the customers who come to town to spend money. The older, often more affluent B&B guest is the one who eats at the nice restaurants, takes in a show at the playhouse and spends money on pricy antiques.
It's the sense of home--not to mention the feather beds and lace pillows--that makes B&Bs stand apart from the typical hotel. Lanier notes that the concept of the inn as a central gathering place can be traced to the beginning of our culture. "B&Bs hold a unique place in our society," Lanier says. "They show that the Old Testament tenet of extending hospitality to the stranger, to those who come to your door, is still alive. B&Bs do more than provide people with a bed. They are a place for people to come together."
For innkeeper Perry Risley of the Black Friar Inn in Bar Harbor, Maine, Lanier's theory turns into practice every morning at breakfast. "We have people who come down in their slippers. People come to us to because they want to talk to people. They don't want to be a nameless person on the street. People who come to bed and breakfasts tend to be people who have had enough of being invisible, of not knowing their neighbors. They want to be somebody, to be known, to be called by name and talked to at breakfast."
Of course, there are plenty of pragmatic reasons B&Bs are so popular. Mueller often has guests who come simply for the chance to stay in a beautiful house full of period furniture and wake up to great food. On Lanier's web site, Travelguides.com, couples eager for a getaway can locate a B&B based on its architectural or historical interest. The Web sites of individual inns usually offer photos of the rooms, decorated with classic art and charming antique washstands. (Of course, not even such prudent research can infallibly rule out the occasional unpleasant surprise--the innkeeper, say, who bears a disturbing resemblance to Hannibal Lecter. But nothing ventured, nothing gained.)
As Lanier notes, skyrocketing real estate costs have put the dream home out of reach for most people. B&Bs offer a chance to indulge the fantasy of a four-poster bed and in-suite hot tub, without the burdens--financial and otherwise--of maintaining an aging manse. "Most inns emphasize the romantic aspect of the weekend getaway," says Lanier. "The rooms tend to be over-the-top to make guest feel not just welcome, but pampered." Perry Risley sees the "over-the-top" trend making the whole industry more competitive. "Our inn is a converted home, so the bathrooms are down the hall from the rooms. When B&Bs were first becoming popular 30 years ago, it was considered quaint to share a bathroom. Now, people want a bathroom in their room." Risley relates the story of a prospective guest who inquired about the inn's air conditioning. The man explained that where he was, it was 90 degrees and he didn't want to be hot in Maine. Despite Risley's assurance that it was never hot in Maine, particularly at the end of October when the man planned to come, the man opted for an inn with ac. A silly decision, yes, but it prompted Risley to install central air, even though he knew it wouldn't get used more than once or twice a year. "Tourism is growing," says Risley. "People have options now, especially in a place like Bar Harbor. If they want something, they can usually get it."
The B&B industry is no longer merely about a place to stay. It's a lifestyle. Lanier's book of B&B recipes, "Cinnamon Mornings" (Ten Speed Press), has become one of the most popular offerings on her web site. She says, "As our lives have sped up, there has come a tremendous desire to slow down. The whole B&B philosophy is one that promotes that slower pace. It's one that says, `Take three hours for breakfast.'" In the same way, the B&B experience is about much more than a bed and a meal. The innkeepers themselves play host, often gathering with their guests for pre-dinner drinks or a light bedtime snack. They recommend restaurants and museums. Risley can tell his guests which of Bar Harbor's numerous whale watching excursions will suit them best. Mueller encourages his guests to linger in common rooms over the morning paper or spend the day watching the lake from the wrap-around porch. It's like spending a weekend at your rich Aunt Martha's country house without having to pitch in on dish duty.
That sense of family extends well beyond the weekend. Risley has guests who send him Christmas cards, others who book their next stay before finishing their current visit, and even groups of friends who first met at his inn, then started meeting there annually. Lanier says many innkeepers send out regular newsletters to guests, updating them on everything from room improvements to when their dog had puppies.
And all of it, the 350-thread-count sheets, the gourmet breakfasts, the gracious innkeepers, clearly meet a real need--hence the hundreds of thousands of people who visit bed and breakfasts ever year. Some may be looking only for a cozy place to lay their heads, others for an experience that is a vacation in itself. But whatever they're looking for, fans of the B&B experience find something pretty rare in modern American culture: a place to share a story, a sunset, a cup of hot chocolate with a total stranger.