Up-Island, they don’t do Main street. Post offices and general stores are not a given either. In fact, go up far enough and town center — or even proof of life — can be difficult to locate.
Alley’s General Store at the junction of West Tisbury and State Roads, is a sort of social last outpost and on this spring Friday afternoon it is buzzing with nearly a dozen people. There’s a swing chair on the front porch and table and chairs inside where a group plays cribbage during the winter. Owner John Alley holds court in the mail room while he sorts the post. Recently store manager Rhonda Backus has noticed a group of twentysomethings congregating on the stoop of Garcia’s, a delicatessen behind the general store.
“This is definitely a news hub,” she says. “People gather here to get info before splitting off everyday.”
Colin Ruel, 24, is in the parking lot, tinkering with the engine of his uncle’s truck. “I’m here all the time,” says the West Tisbury resident, pointing to the double draw of food and coffee.
Further up the road is the Chilmark Store, the last Up-Island spot to buy supplies such as bottled water. In summer it can get so busy that traffic bottlenecks at Beetlebung Corner. Today, however, there is no one in sight. In fact, the only activity is a large osprey picking over a rabbit carcass in the middle of the road. By the look of its meal not many cars have been through this afternoon.
The Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) has hit upon an efficient way to tackle the sparsity of population and municipal trade in Aquinnah — stick everything under one roof. The multi-purpose building at the bottom of Black Brook Road, built in 1994, houses all the tribe’s municipal departments and doubles as a social center.
“This is home,” says Cheryl Andrews-Maltais, the new tribal president. She is busy preparing for the spring social potluck which will attract dozens of Vineyarders with music and food. This afternoon though, with people walking briskly past, folders in hand, it seems like a better place to register a zoning complaint than to chew the fat.
Adjusting the radio, or even blinking on the long and winding trip up State Road you might not catch the tiny strip of municipal buildings that mark Aquinnah’s official center of town.
The Aquinnah library, with its regular book readings and salsa nights, is, by many accounts, the place to be. Not today though — while you can look out on a swamp and watch bumblebees to your heart’s content from the stone-slab chair outside, you cannot go in. The library opens only three days a week.
Across the road in the new town hall there is an empty box which sells $1 books and a sign warning that the annual book sale has been cancelled. Town coordinator Jeff Burgoyne, the only other human in the vicinity, is really holding the place together. He gives a low key run-down of local community activity.
“There’s not a whole lot,” he offers, pointing out that Aquinnah doesn’t even have a zip code. “A few people play ping-pong together now and then. That’s about it.”
He is referring to Quinapong: a regular table tennis meet held in the old town hall — next door to the new town hall — for the past two years on Monday, Wednesday and Friday evenings. Longtime Aquinnah resident John Walsh is the go-to man. An integral Quinapong member, Mr. Walsh is also heading up construction of a new kitchen which will allow the building to officially reopen at the end of this month.
The kitchen project began this spring and has been slow going — Mr. Walsh blames ping-pong for the delay. “It was a case of prioritizing,” he explains, while conducting a tour over his handiwork in the new kitchen, “but it’s done and the town of Aquinnah is the real winner here.”
Monthly musical potlucks were a feature during the winter months until the old town hall was condemned three years ago. According to Mr. Walsh, the building is what the town has been missing.
“This is where you’d go to find out who died in the middle of the night,” he said. “There’s no place to do gossip. It’s a real issue and we lost a lot of community by having it unavailable.”
At the bitter end of State Road, the shops selling wampum and snacks at the Gay Head Cliffs keep erratic hours at this time of year. Martha Vanderhoop’s shop is open — she insists that the area isn’t simply for tourists. “Locals come up here too,” she points out, with a qualifier. “You know, they bring their visitors.” A row of newspaper vending machines is lined up, empty, at the back of the yet-to-open Aquinnah Restaurant, next to an unreliable-looking Coke machine. At the other end of the strip is a penny-pincher souvenir coin maker. A few ineffective twirls of its silver handle, which works only if you have two quarters and a penny — and you can begin to feel very, very alone.