Most Vineyarders think of Labor Day weekend as the final push before the cathartic cleansing that comes with the departure of summer visitors. And now that it is over, business owners have a chance to catch their breath and evaluate how summer business fared. So far evaluations are mixed.
While some merchants are reporting a high water mark for sales and customers, others say that business was down - by some estimates as much as 25 per cent over previous years.
"The whole summer was down, there's no doubt about it," said Peter Martell, owner of the Wesley Hotel in Oak Bluffs. "We're down from last year, and last year was down from the previous year. We're going the wrong way."
Mr. Martell was like many other business owners who said skyrocketing gas prices, a sagging economy and the overall state of world affairs hurt business this summer on the Island.
To make matters worse, bad weather in early weeks of July and last days of August shortened the summer season, Mr. Martell said.
"We basically had a five-week summer - the middle of July through the third week of August. It's hard to make a living with only a five-week season."
On the Vineyard, statistics for tourism and the seasonal economy are hard to come by. There are no numbers compiled for the number of rooms rented, South Beach sweatshirts sold or mopeds rented.
One of the few solid indicators of the season is the data compiled by the Steamship Authority.
Traffic numbers collected from June 1 through August 21 indicate that the number of automobiles coming to the Island on boat line ferries in June and July decreased from 121,916 to 120,380 as compared with the same time period last year - a net loss of 1,536 vehicles. The number of passengers for those months dipped from 796,397 to 778,106 - a total decrease of 18,291.
The number of vehicles traveling to the Island during the three prime summer months - June, July and August - peaked in 2001, while the number of passengers during that same period peaked in the summer of 2002.
The number of visitors traveling to the Island on SSA ferries has declined every year since, and is projected to decrease again this year. (The passenger totals, however, do not account for visitors traveling to the Vineyard on private ferry lines, among them the Hy-Line and New England Fast Ferry, which are drawing an increased share of the passenger market from boat line ferries.)
Tom Lufkin, an accountant with the SSA, said the number of commercial trucks arriving on the Island reached an all-time high last year, and should break the record again this year, a strong indicator that new homes continue to be built.
"We have more year-round people here now who don't necessarily travel on and off the Island as much," he said.
Kerry Scott, the Oak Bluffs selectman and owner of Good Dog Goods pet stores, said rising gas costs coupled with a largely negative economic forecast have driven away average families who scrimp and save all year to visit the Island.
"People are spending their money very cautiously this year. There is no doubt that the increased cost of living has played a part in people's vacation plans this summer," she said.
Ms. Scott said the Island is in the downturn of a business cycle, which in the short term means fewer customers but in the long term may be good for the overall health of the Island.
"We cannot kill the golden goose. If we have summer after summer that is jam packed it's going to have an effect on the Island in the long run. That cycle is part of our recovery," she said.
Renee Balter, the former longtime president of the Oak Bluffs Association, said the Island had an "iffy" summer.
Mrs. Balter said some weeks - such as the one that included Illumination night in Oak Bluffs and the Martha's Vineyard Agricultural Society Livestock Show and Fair in West Tisbury - were hopping with visitors, largely due to flawless weather. But at other times Mother Nature kept people away, she said.
"We have so many people who make their plans at the last minute. They look at the forecast in Boston and decide not to come here because it's supposed to rain, even though it may be sunny here," she said.
Mrs. Balter said poor weather this past weekend turned away a cruise ship slated to dock at Oak Bluffs with 2,500 passengers in tow. But with the remnants of Tropical Storm Ernesto lingering along the East Coast, the cruise line decided to skip the visit.
Mrs. Balter said she was optimistic the Island will have a successful shoulder season heading into the fall. One positive is that many businesses have managed to solve a crucial staffing problem by hiring young people from European countries such as Belarus, Bulgaria and the Ukraine.
In previous years, many businesses would scramble to find help after college students left in late August.
"Many of the employers have their staff for the fall. Now we just need the customers," she said.
Charlie Blair, the harbor master of Edgartown, said the number of boats in the harbor this year was down overall from last summer. Mr. Blair said the month of June was particularly slow, July was a little off and August was a little better.
"We haven't seen a lot of families coming over like we have; maybe because they don't have the money, maybe because the weather has been so bad, or maybe a little of both. Bottom line is, not as many people came to the Vineyard by boat this summer," he said.
But opinions about the summer season can be as fickle as the summer breezes across the Island, and the answers often depend on whom you ask.
Greer Thornton, an owner of Atria restaurant in Edgartown, said the restaurant had its best year since it opened in 2000.
Ms. Thornton said that while June and July were flat last year, this year the restaurant was filled almost to capacity throughout the summer season. She said the fall looks promising, and the restaurant has seven weddings booked for September alone.
She traced the restaurant's success to some fine-tuning over the years, and said the restaurant has reached the point where it can rely largely on repeat customers and word of mouth business.
"It's hard work running a business on the Island in the summer, and you have to keep doing the best you can to build up that momentum," she said.
Maggie White, owner of the Hob Knob Inn and president of the Edgartown Board of Trade, said her inn had a very good year, although she heard some businesses did have slow seasons.
Ms. White said she feels the higher-end businesses - that often cater to a more affluent clientele - are not affected as much by the ups and downs of the summer economy.
"I think the more upscale places tend to work harder at their businesses than others. They are more diligent about keeping their level of service up, and making sure their customers return each year," Ms. White said.
However, many family-oriented businesses, driven largely by the middle-class families, have also had successful summers.
Derek Tipton, general manager of the Island Inn, said despite a slow spring and early summer, July and August were very strong and the fall looks to be even stronger. The clientele of the Island Inn is predominately young families, who are able to share a large unit complete with kitchenette and multiple bedrooms.
"You can still enjoy the Island and not spend a lot of money. I hope people remember that," he said.
Louis Larsen, the owner of the Net Result in Vineyard Haven, said the fish market had its best year to date.
Mr. Larsen estimated it was due in part to the new take-out business's flourishing. "You can bring all your kids here, they can sit at the picnic tables and make a big mess. What more could you ask?" he said.