Garcia’s deli – commonly called Back Alley’s – an up-Island mainstay for hungry tradesmen looking for early morning coffee and pastry or lunchtime sandwiches or pizza, closed Monday.
A steady stream of surprised Islanders walked up to the door and looked at a sign taped to the side Monday as workers moved goods out of the shop located in a building behind Alley’s General Store, on State Road in the heart of West Tisbury.
Business owner Paul Garcia spoke quickly to The Times as he oversaw the closure of his business after seven and one half years. He said he could no longer afford to meet the rent demanded by the landlord, the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah).
Mr. Garcia said under the terms of his lease he paid the tribe monthly rent and a percentage of sales. He said the tribe had raised the rent each year. The final straw, he said, was an increase in the percentage from two to 3.5 percent.
Mr. Garcia said the Tribe refused to negotiate the rent, or even talk about it. He said he had been unable to contact tribe chairman Cheryl Andrews-Maltais by phone or through certified letters.
“They don’t answer letters or anyone’s phone calls,” Mr. Garcia said. “They don’t even have the courtesy to do that.”
Asked what he thought was behind the Tribe’s refusal to speak to him about the business, Mr. Garcia provided a harsh appraisal: “I just think they are incompetent. It’s a dysfunctional operation that can’t conduct business affairs.”
Mr. Garcia, who lives next door to the property, said that when he began Garcia’s he negotiated his lease with the tribal enterprise board (TEB) and then chairman Bettina Washington. The TEB was previously responsible for the Tribe’s business operations.
Mr. Garcia said he had tried to purchase the building from the tribe five years ago and had thought the negotiations had reached an agreement with then tribal chairman Donald Widdiss. The deal stalled in the tribal council, Mr. Garcia said.
“Every year the rent goes up,” Mr. Garcia said. He said his rent was now more than $60,000 annually. The percentage of sales pushed that figure, he said, closer to $100,000. “And they say it’s not enough, the want more,” Mr. Garcia said.
Mr. Garcia said he told the Tribe in 2008 when his rent increased that it was too much. “They just don’t understand you can’t make that much money here,” he said.
Tuesday afternoon, The Times telephoned the office of chairman Cheryl Andrews-Maltais and left a message for Ms. Maltais, who was off-Island on tribe business.
The Times did speak with tribe administrator Tobias Vanderhoop who said he would attempt to contact Ms. Maltais. Mr. Vanderhoop asked The Times to email questions to Ms. Maltais and to him.
The email to the tribe asked about the lease agreement with Mr. Garcia and invited the tribe to respond to Mr. Garcia’s critical comments.
The Times telephoned Mr. Vanderhoop yesterday afternoon and left a message. Just before press time, at 5 pm yesterday, The Times received the following email message from Mr. Vanderhoop: “Thank you for your follow up call earlier this afternoon. I am writing at the chairwoman’s request. We appreciate your interest in this issue, however we have no public comment at this time. We are interested in communicating directly with Mr. Garcia about our business affairs.”
Chris Scott, executive director of the Martha’s Vineyard Preservation Trust, which owns the historic Alley’s General Store and shares the common property with the Tribe, said he became aware that Garcia’s was closing a few weeks ago. Mr. Scott said the little things affect the West Tisbury village center in a big way.
“Obviously this is a development that affects the Trust and the Tribe mutually,” Mr. Scott said. “We would welcome a dialog with The Tribe.”
A glimpse of the history
The Tribe may not, as Mr. Garcia said, understand how much money can be made operating a sandwich shop business, but it does have some experience with running one.
In April 1998, the tribe leased Alley’s General Store from the Martha’s Vineyard Preservation Trust. It purchased Back Alley’s café from former owner Howard Ulfelder in the spring of 1999.
Back Alley’s had done a thriving summer trade, and in winter accommodated the numerous neighbors, town employees, and contractors who patronized it. It was known for its coffee, fresh-baked pastries, hearty homemade soup and sandwich lunches, and friendly help behind the counter.
The tribe opened Back Alley’s as a café in summer 1999, selling sandwiches and baked goods. For a time the small food business flourished under manager Beth Kaeka. But the doors closed abruptly in February 2001, when Ms. Kaeka left after differences with the tribe.
The facility remained vacant while the tribe sought someone to lease the business for a reported cost of $9,500 per month. Later the asking price was reduced to $8,000, according to interested parties.
In March 2002, the tribe backed out of an agreement to sell Back Alley’s to the Martha’s Vineyard Preservation Trust at the eleventh hour, following months of negotiations and confirmation from both sides that an agreement had been reached.
Mr. Scott said at the time he did not know what was behind the decision, only that the tribe had reneged on its agreement. “Really, I’m at a loss to understand it,” Mr. Scott told The Times.
In June 2002, the Preservation Trust took over Alley’s General Store from the tribe, which was in the final year of a five-year lease of Alley’s.
In August 2002, the Tribe concluded a deal with Mr. Garcia and Back Alley’s reopened as Garcia’s. The Trust retained the right of first refusal should the Tribe decide to sell the Back Alley’s property.
At the time, Mr. Garcia told The Times, “The lease is renewable in five years, and I hope to be here in ten.”
Late Monday morning, Linda Alley was still selling a dwindling supply of baked goods and sandwiches. One of the first employees to arrive in the early morning hours, it is something she has done the past seven winters.
“It’s very sad,” Ms. Alley said. “I’m going to miss my customers. I’m a morning person, and 6:30 am is when I’m really happy.”
by Nelson Sigelman