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Looking Forward While Looking Back

Looking Forward While Looking Back

I guess most of you know of our big announcement by now.  This year will be our last at Hemlock Inn. Our oldest, Andrew, and his partners will be taking over operations in 2024. There will be some changes of course, but a lot will stay the same.  We’ll be sharing much more about the transition all year.

But interestingly, I find myself looking backward as much as forward as our new season begins.

Lainey’s parents, John and Ella Jo Shell, had been “suggesting” we move to the inn for several years and at the same time “hinting” that they might even sell. They had been innkeepers for 20 years and just wanted to slow down.  I was a banker at the time and Lainey owned a teddy bear/chocolate shop in Hendersonville. We were happy and content, but also kept wondering if we would have regrets if we didn’t move the inn just to “give it a try”.  We also didn’t want to see the inn leave the family. We decided to make a leap of faith and moved in the winter of 1987.

I came into the family business during our 5th year of marriage.  Andrew was just one year old, and the day we moved, we discovered we were expecting our second child, Steven.   Lainey was excited about being a fulltime mom.  I must admit that I was a bit apprehensive about the move. I had no experience in innkeeping and I quickly discovered that life was about to change in a big way. 

I considered myself a competent and somewhat intelligent person, but I quickly discovered I didn’t know what I was doing.  The plan was for me to follow John around and slowly learn all the nuances of the inn.  That worked for a while, until the unexpected happened.  Lainey’s mom, Ella Jo, was diagnosed with cancer. At the time, treatment was unavailable in our small rural mountainous counties.  Her treatments, almost daily, would be done in Asheville, an hour away.  For John, his priorities changed.  He would not be able to train his son-in-law, his attention understandingly turned to caring for his wife, Ella Jo.  I soon began to really understand what being an innkeeper entailed. 

The big concerns were obvious.  Meals must remain delicious and plentiful.  Guest rooms needed to be cleaned and ready daily. We must keep good staff and that requires daily involvement.  But I also quicky discovered that details matter. If the small things are done right, the better things run.  And there were a lot of small little things.  

I haven’t even mentioned the most important aspect, and the one that would be surprisingly uncomfortable for me…..simple Hospitality. This is the quality where John and Ella Jo and Lainey excelled.  Defined as “the friendly and generous reception and entertainment of guests, visitors, or even strangers”, it was not one of my stronger attributes.  Truth is I was a bit quiet and even shy. And the guests noticed.  One very regular guest once told me later that she wasn’t sure “…I was going to make it”.  Another exasperated guest fumed when I failed to take care of something in his room, “I don’t know how you have kept your job”. 

I considered myself friendly, but not very engaging, comfortable with conversation, but not at initiating it, pleasant but not especially outgoing.  I always assumed that the really friendly, outgoing, communitive folks were just born that way. It was their natural personality.  But I discovered something differently and it came in an unexpected way.  When we sat with guests for dinner, I began to notice the guests would often defer to me when the conversation started.  I then realized that as the innkeeper, they were interested in what I was saying. For heaven’s sake, they even laughed at my often-corny jokes.  I began building a bond that grew and grew. It no longer became a uncomfortable to talk with them, I enjoyed our times together and was interested in what they had to share.  They became friends. We developed a relationship and, in the end, that’s what really matters. 

John Shell has repeatedly stressed two important things to remember: First, Hemlock Inn is more than a place, it’s a feeling.  It’s the atmosphere and friendliness, and comfort the guests feel that really sets this place apart from others.   Second, the secret of Hemlock Inn is taking care of the guests.  Don’t ever take them for granted.  Take care of them, listen to them, share with them.

The years have passed.  We now have three sons, all married, all in ministry. We have seven grandchildren. And we have countless friends made over our many years at Hemlock inn. It’s all about hospitality.

Over time, I will share some more stories of our time here.  Be on the watch for my next blog.