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Opening a B&B can be risky but rewarding business

Welch House co-owner Susan Hodder brings French toast and bacon out to the roof deck for breakfast.

ZACK WITTMAN FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

Welch House co-owner Susan Hodder brings French toast and bacon out to the roof deck for breakfast.

BOOTHBAY HARBOR — Standing on the outdoor deck of the Welch House in this summer vacation village, gazing down a long, pine-fringed harbor toward the Atlantic Ocean, it’s easy to succumb to the notion that this is the place to be all year long.

Who needs more of the busy Boston life? How about making a new life in running a bed-and-breakfast like the Welch House, built about 1870, and spend the summer schmoozing with interesting guests from around the country and abroad?

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That’s part of the motivation that transformed Susan Hodder and Michael Feldmann, two corporate professionals, into novice Boothbay Harbor innkeepers in 2003. I like to cook, Susan said; I can manage the B&B’s front desk and web affairs, Michael said.

Except, of course, it’s much more than cooking, sprucing up the website, and handing out the keys. But they knew that. Sort of.

Undaunted, they ventured to Maine from Lexington, Mass., for a new world of roller-coaster cash flow, 14 rooms to clean, a drip-drip-drip of unexpected repairs, and a daily stream of smiling “how are yous” for a revolving clientele that occasionally checks its friendliness at the door.

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It turns out they weren’t alone. Boothbay Harbor now has a close-knit cadre of innkeepers, several from Massachusetts, who chose to chuck the routines of harried metro life for an unpredictable business with a well-documented burnout rate.

“We gave up a 9-to-5 job for a 5-to-9 job,” said Susan, who wasn’t talking about 5 a.m. to 9 a.m., but about the 16-hour variation.

‘Twelve people a night, times 4½ months, times 28 years. Everything is time-consuming. . . . I never regret it. This is the simple life and I was looking for simple.’

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Eleven years later, she and Michael are glad they did it.

“My clients never used to give me hugs and kisses before,” Susan said. “Here, I work to live; there, I lived to work.”

But getting to that point required a leap of faith in their abilities, and a hope that the fantasy of starting over — commonly considered but rarely acted on — wouldn’t turn disastrous.

“It was almost like we decided we were going to take control,” Michael said.

Part of that decision was influenced by the realities of the economically challenged post-9/11 corporate world. Susan’s marketing company in Cambridge, Mass., where she worked as a vice president, had chopped its staff from 50 to eight.

“I could see the writing on the wall,” Susan thought at the time. “But at least Michael had a good job.”

And then Michael, who worked as director of Internet development for the Massachusetts Medical Society, came home one evening to announce he had been laid off. A fruitless search for work followed, but some fruitful soul-searching too, Susan said.

“Neither of us had ever owned our own business or had any depth in the hospitality field,” Susan said. “We were told that there’s a high burnout rate — average inn ownership is five years — and that our marriage may not survive.”

It has, and apparently very well. There’s a lot of smiling as they walk about the Welch House Inn, a four-story building of white, wooden clapboards perched on a view-blessed hill overlooking the harbor. They finish each other’s sentences easily and pleasantly. And they even make time for what they call “John and Yoko days,” when they stay in bed all day during the ebb tides of their year-round business.

But this is now. Before they put down stakes, their days were fraught with more than a little uncertainty. Two of the first things the couple asked themselves was, “What do we do, and what can we do?”

The division of labor has evolved over time at the Welch House, the couple said, but the routine is now embedded. Susan loves the mornings and rises by 6 a.m. to start the cooking: Brie and herb French toast with homemade apricot syrup, and crustless, gluten-free crabmeat quiche are two examples. Michael rubs his eyes a little later and lends a hand in the kitchen before helping to serve and greet the guests.

Breakfast runs from 7:30 to 9:30 a.m., and then there’s checkout at 11. A staff of six — five are part-time — clean the rooms and make the beds. Before new guests begin arriving at 2 p.m., Michael has an opening to shop, stain a few chairs, or do any number of chores that come with the job.

It helps that their living quarters are shoehorned into a secluded niche of the inn — “our commute literally is 30 feet,” Michael said — but the downside is that it’s nearly impossible to escape the needs of the guests and the home during the high summer season. In those busy few months, the couple barely have time to socialize with their friends in town.

And then, once in a while, there are guests who cannot be pleased. For example, the shower head might need a nudge, Michael said. But instead of asking for help, sometimes the guests take their annoyance with them when they leave and vent it elsewhere.

“It’s karma, it’s all karma,” Michael said. “We’re able to take the negativity in stride.”

Through it all, the innkeeper’s job is to present a pleasant face to a constantly changing world.

“Everything that happens here is on stage,” Susan said. “When you come out from behind the curtain, you’re performing. But what we learned is those don’t have to be two different people.”

Across the narrow harbor, Donna Piggott, 66, came to the same realization after she bought the Atlantic Ark Inn in 1986. Piggott had been teaching math in Falmouth, Mass., when she decided she wanted something different.

“I had no clue how I was going to earn a living up here,” Piggott said. “But I was thinking, I know how to make beds, and I know how to clean.”

Now, Piggott said, she is the longest-serving innkeeper in Boothbay Harbor, where 14 B&Bs and 18 hotels have set up shop in the village and on Boothbay peninsula. Piggott hires people to make the beds in the inn’s five guestrooms and one cottage, but she oversees the mid-19th-century home with a detailed, artistic sensibility.

“Twelve people a night, times 4½ months, times 28 years,” Piggott said with a smile as she calculated her guests over the years. “Everything is time-consuming: cooking, cleaning, the yard has to be beautiful.”

Still, she said, “I never regret it. This is a simple life, and I was looking for simple.”

At the head of the harbor, in a sturdy house whose green summer lawn extends to the farthest reach of the tide, Kathryn and Pete Sullivan said they have no second thoughts about selling a condominium in Charlestown, Mass., 13 years ago and opening a B&B in an 1877 sea captain’s home.

Kathryn, 47, grew up in the three-story home, but her parents “thought we were crazy to move up here,” she recalled. She left a job as bank examiner, and Pete, 52, had a job with a paving company. Still, they wanted something else.

And now, at the Bayside Inn, the year-round bed-and-breakfast is their full-time job as they raise two children, ages 13 and 10.

“This is one of those towns that grabs you,” Pete said, even if the move came with a significant financial hit. “I love to go back and visit the city, I really do. But I see the Tobin Bridge, and my blood pressure goes up.”

The high-season demands of innkeeping are not relaxing, but they bring a steady diet of intangible rewards, the innkeepers said.

“There is a sense of community here that is so strong,” said Susan Hodder, the Welch House owner.

If they need a reminder, Susan and Michael have pasted one on the rear of their car, usually parked near the curving stone walk to their shaded front door.

It’s a bumper sticker emblazoned with six simple words: “Remember who you wanted to be.”

Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at macquarrie@globe.com.
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