LOVELL, Maine — Wanted: new owner for a classic Maine inn. Experience: whatever you’ve got. Requirements: 200 words of pithy persuasion.
Oh, also needed is a willingness to work 17 hours a day.
But for anyone who has day-dreamed of jumping off the 9-to-5 treadmill and running a country inn, Janice Sage is offering an essay contest to let them do just that.
Sage owns the Center Lovell Inn and Restaurant, three hours north of Boston, and is ready to retire 22 years after she acquired the place in a previous essay contest.
“She’s a beauty,” Sage said of the rambling, 210-year-old inn, which has magnificent views of the Presidential Range. “Who doesn’t want to wake up in the morning and see these mountains?”
Plenty of people apparently want that experience, despite ultra-long workdays that come from cooking breakfast, cleaning rooms, taking reservations, checking out guests, and serving dinner in a maintenance-greedy inn that is open year-round.
Sage expects more than 7,500 entries from around the globe. At $125 per entry, the total she rakes in could surge past the inn’s estimated value of $900,000.
Sage makes no apologies for seeking a large nest egg as she sails into the rest of her life. After 22 years at the Lovell Inn, and 16 years before that as manager of a busy Maryland restaurant, Sage said she’s earned the right to sit down more than once in a while.
“My feet have been getting bigger every year,” she said with a chuckle. “I’ve always been on the go.”
Sage gave few clues to what the winning essay should look like, other than being grammatically correct and showing passion for the work. The subject, “Why I would like to own and operate a country inn,” seems simple. But stringing together the right 200 words — about one-fifth the length of this article — with the right tone, right ingredients, and right passion will be challenging.
Even the winning formula used two decades ago remains a mystery. Sage said the essay is the property of the previous owner and she is prohibited from disclosing its contents. But Sage was more than happy to describe what running the inn requires.
“Unless you raise 14 kids, you’re not going to be used to this,” Sage said, referencing the needs of seven rooms a day, seven days a week in high season. “Look, this is something you start when you’re young. It takes a lot of stamina.”
Reading 7,500 essays also will take a lot of stamina, and Sage intends to read them all by May 17. She will pass along the top 20 essays — without names or addresses — to two people from the area whose identities also will remain a mystery.
The judges are charged with choosing a winner by May 21, and the transfer is expected to occur within 30 days after that.
The deal comes with strings. The new owner must agree to maintain the property as a country inn and restaurant for at least one year after the hand-over, keep the building painted white, and maintain the roofing and shutters in forest green, hunter green, or black.
And there are sweeteners. The victor will receive $20,000 to start running the property, which includes a wraparound porch, a cavernous kitchen, and 12 acres close to Kezar Lake.
The furnishings and equipment come with the inn, but any leftover food and liquor go to Sage, a native of central New York who plans to continue to live near here.
“Why would I go anywhere else? It was too hot in Maryland,” Sage said with a laugh. “New England and upstate New York are a very comfortable place for me — somewhere north of Pennsylvania and New Jersey.”
But when she wrote her essay more than two decades ago, Sage had never been to Maine. A friend heard about the contest on the Phil Donahue television show, and Sage paid the $100 entry fee after winning a small prize in the Maryland state lottery.
Three weeks later, she was on her way to Lovell, a village in southwestern Maine within sight of Mount Washington. Sage flew to Portland and hired a driver, who soon became lost while navigating the back roads to the property.
Once in Lovell, however, all was well after Sage spied the inn. “It could have been half in the ground, and I would have taken it,” she recalled. “I was thrilled.”
Not all that followed was thrilling: $500,000 in renovations, scrambling to serve up to 120 diners a night, and two guests whom she told never to return. “One was just being annoying on purpose,” she recalled with a grimace.
Still, the work and its routine have been their own rewards.
“I call her my grande-dame, my big old grande-dame,” Sage said wistfully. “I tell her when I’m painting that if she didn’t clean up so well, I wouldn’t do this.”
And then there are the guests — except the two annoying ones, of course — whom Sage said she’ll miss.
The constant shuffle of visitors meant constantly changing conversations, and close bonds formed between Sage and parents who stayed at the inn every year while delivering children to summer camps.
“I’ll miss it for all the good reasons,” Sage said. “I’ve loved it.”
For her successor, the innkeeper offered advice that should prove to be tougher in practice than concept.
“Just breeze on through and don’t let things bother you,” Sage said. “Enjoy, just enjoy.”