Up in West Tisbury, past the airport but before the Mill Pond, is a small building. A part of both Island and national history, it serves as a social and cultural melting pot and a way to track economic trends. It is the Lillian Manter Memorial Hostel and, on a recent Tuesday morning shortly after 10 a.m., every bed was booked, but not a guest was around. The hot July sun was out and the groups of bikers and summer campers, the travellers from Canada and Germany and the friends shacked up in the one private room were all off exploring the Island. It was a day designed to fulfill the mission of a hostel.
“The goal is to encourage all people, and especially the young, to see the world through hosteling, which essentially means to let people travel for not a whole lot of money,” said manager Jeff Munroe, 27.
In this neck of the woods, hostel is both a noun and a verb. It is an inexpensive, supervised lodging place and a traveler who stays there. There are lifelong hostelers and those hosteling for the first time. Mr. Munroe, who has been in the business for a few years, was not always a hosteler.
After graduating from Boston University with a degree in philosophy, he accepted a front desk job at a Boston hostel. “When I first started, I didn’t really understand what hosteling is all about. I thought it was just a free place to stay,” he said. “I had hosteled before in North Conway, New Hampshire, near the White Mountains, and in Paris and Italy.” His real awakening came when he started logging his hours.
“You see people connecting in a way that you don’t see in other spaces. They are sharing kitchens, dorm rooms, common areas. They sleep within four feet of each other. Hostels are designed as spaces for other people to meet, spaces that are accessible, as compared to motels or hotels,” he said. “It’s watching the connections. You sit down with someone at ten, before bed, and then all of a sudden it’s like four in the morning. It’s this moment of connection with someone who’s doing the same thing you’re doing. That’s kind of what it’s all about. It’s seeing people meet who otherwise would not. It’s awesome.”
Mr. Munroe told of the time a group from New Bedford was staying at the hostel in Boston and took a few guests from Russia and some visitors from France out to a Portuguese festival. He mentioned his pen pal, a former guest at that hostel who lives in London. They have not seen each other since they first met five years ago.
After Boston, Mr. Munroe moved out to San Diego where he split his time between two hostels, both run by Hosteling International (HI), a national nonprofit organization. After one year, he returned to the Boston hostel, then moved to Colorado to take a job on a farm. It was while there that he came across a listing for the manager position at this youth hostel.
Located off the Edgartown-West Tisbury Road, the Lillian Manter Memorial Hostel is little known among Island residents. Its history, however, is a rich one. Richard Schirrmann created the first permanent Jugendherberge or ‘Youth Hostel’ in Germany in 1912. The idea caught on and in 1933, Isabel and Monroe Smith opened the first American hostel in Northfield.
In 1942, 12 New Yorkers on bicycles arrived on Martha’s Vineyard to discover no hostel. The Red Cross and the Wesley Hotel joined forces to house them for the night. Five years later, a makeshift hostel was set up in the West Tisbury School. The next year, it moved to a permanent home in the former U.S. Navy bachelor officer quarters at the Martha’s Vineyard Airport. According to this newspaper, the building provided 300 beds and charged adults 50 cents a night. The charge for those under 21 was 40 cents.
In 1955, West Tisbury resident Lillian Manter donated a piece of her land for a hostel to be built upon. Most hostels both in the United States and abroad are converted monasteries or homes, hotels or school buildings. There is one in Taos, N.M., which is a collection of teepees. The one in Boston where Mr. Munroe worked was a Howard Johnson’s restaurant which had been converted to a dorm and only later to a hostel. The one built in West Tisbury was the first hostel in the country constructed specifically for the purpose of being a hostel. Although others followed, it is the only one still remaining today.
The West Tisbury hostel has had many owners, a few managers and has housed many guests, including Arlo Guthrie who arrived with Ray and Alice Brock (the latter was the inspiration for Mr. Guthrie’s 18-minute long hit Alice’s Restaurant). In 1984, American Youth Hostels, Inc. bought the hostel. It is now run by Hosteling International. In 1998, the building was officially dedicated the Lillian Manter Memorial Hostel.
Over the years, the hosteling industry has evolved and the West Tisbury hostel has changed with it. “Hosteling in general has strayed from being rural in nature. We are one of the only real rural hostels left in the U.S. HI is focusing their attention on hipper, urban hostels because that’s where the money is, which is kind of too bad because a lot of those smaller hostels which have closed were in little places that otherwise wouldn’t be visited,” said Mr. Munroe.
“On the whole, hosteling is declining in popularity. For awhile, you could ride from Provincetown to the western border of Massachusetts and there would be a hostel every 20 miles,” Mr. Munroe said. Today, Hosteling International runs seven in the state including this one, one on Nantucket and two on the Cape. Mr. Munroe attributes the shift to three reasons. “One, people would rather spend a little more money and be more comfortable,” he said. “Two, there is history of mismanagement in hostels,” he continued. “Three, the way people travel has changed. Airfare has come down, so it’s easier to travel to foreign countries.” He also said hostels used to be cheaper to operate, but today, there is a demand for better services, better quality and better management, all of which make the businesses more expensive to operate.
Once known as youth hostels, the national organization is now pushing to drop the ‘youth,’ another trend. “This hostel is dependent on middle-aged guests,” Mr. Munroe said. “People who were hosteling at 18, 19 are going to be 30 to 35 now.”
The Manter Memorial hostel has historically opened in April. This year, after examining revenue, the hostel opened to the public in May, though they did house the Island nonprofit group Safe Haven for a week before that. “In the beginning of the season, we mainly attract workers looking for housing and the occasional school group,” said Mr. Munroe. “Once school lets out, we attract cycling trips and random travelers. In July, camps start to book and backpackers. In August, it’s usually the people who have been coming for years and years, people who know it’s a great time to be on-Island. We are open until Columbus Day and until then we attract people in town for weddings and September-lovers. It mirrors a lot of the trends on the Vineyard.”
The hostel starts accepting bookings after New Year’s and asks for 48 hours notice for a cancellation. According to guidelines put in place by Hosteling International, a guest can stay for up to two weeks at any one hostel in a calendar year. Most guests to the West Tisbury hostel stay for an average of two to three days, Mr. Munroe said. Prices are $32 a night Sunday through Thursday and $35 a night Friday and Saturday. A four-bed private room costs $150 to book. Complimentary breakfast is included in the price. Prices have gone up the past two years.
The hostel’s 72 beds are fit into four rooms: a co-ed dorm room, an all-male room, an all-female room and the private room. “We actually get a lot of single women travelers, which is why we house the most beds in the female dorm — 26. They know there is strength in numbers and also that it’s easy to meet people here,” Mr. Munroe said. The men’s room has 16 beds. There is a common room with games and couches and a common kitchen with three refrigerators, three peddle-operated sinks, a compost bin and six stoves.
With the economic slowdown creeping into every corner of the country, the hostel has felt the effects. Numbers were off 15 per cent in June, down from 1,150 overnights in 2007 to 973 in 2008. July is looking up, Mr. Munroe said, but it is mainly attributed to this past week when a few groups booked the building. “We think our numbers are down because of the economy,” Mr. Munroe said. “Some biking and camping groups are taking fewer trips. The example I was using was one family who came three or four times last summer. I hadn’t heard from them all summer and then last week, they finally called, but they’re only coming once for one week.”
As a nonprofit, the hostel is also always on the lookout for donations, both financial and for things needed such as couches, chairs and outdoor furniture. Yet the business remains committed to providing an opportunity for travellers to see the world on the cheap. To that end, they award scholarships of up to $1,000 to certain groups like the Boston-based organization Bikes Not Bombs. Mr. Munroe in particular would like to see this hostel grow into a place where travellers can interact with the local community. This spring, the hostel hosted Dump the Pump Day and Mr. Munroe would like to see the space utilized by schools and as a venue for fundraisers.
“I would like to give back. The Island provides a lot for us. Without Martha’s Vineyard, we wouldn’t be here, so the least we can do is open it up to them,” he said. “I feel like a hostel should be a public space and it’s nice if a hostel has a relationship with the community which can be positive for everyone.”
For more information on the Lillian Manter Memorial Hostel or to make a donation, please call 508-693-2665 or see online at capecodhostels.org.