NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

December 19, 2007

Karp closes hub of island’s off-season social life

Stephen Tait

Editor’s note: This is the second in a three-part series on billionaire Stephen Karp’s influence on Nantucket. Karp has become the largest landowner in Newburyport and Nantucket. He has yet to publicly state what he will do with his Newburyport holdings, but on Nantucket his track record has emerged. The Daily News sent a reporter to Nantucket last week to discuss changes there.



NANTUCKET — Phil Read says he is asked the question anytime he goes to the grocery store, to a friend’s party or to most any place: What happened to the Tap Room and Jared’s?

It is a question Read struggles to answer. It is an answer Nantucketers seem desperate to know.

For four decades, Read and his wife, Peg, owned and operated the Jared Coffin House and its restaurant and bar, called Jared’s and the Tap Room, respectively. The Tap Room occupied the basement of the house, and Jared’s was on the first floor.

But early last year, the hotel’s new owner, Stephen Karp, shut them down, and Nantucketers say no one knows when — or if — they will open again.

Andrew Vorce, the island’s planning director, said Nantucket’s “people have a strong nostalgic connection” to the Jared Coffin House, especially to the Tap Room and the restaurant.

That was made clear in interviews with Nantucketers — from town officials and shop owners to ordinary citizens — as each mentioned the Coffin House and the closing of the Tap Room as a point of contention with Karp’s management of the downtown district.

“That was one of the only places for people to go year-round for a reasonable dinner,” said David Place, an antique shop owner in downtown Nantucket. “(Karp) just closed it down, and it has hurt the downtown area.”

With the closing of the two establishments, the island is, for the first time in decades, without a year-round hotel/restaurant establishment.

The Coffin House is actually the earliest of connections between Nantucket and Newburyport. Jared Coffin, an accomplished shipbuilder, built the home in 1845, about 200 years after his ancestor, Tristram Coffin, first moved to Nantucket from the Newburyport area.

Restaurant and Pub

The local Rotary Club met there. Families dined there during the holidays. For Sunday brunches, it was always the place to be. As Place recalls it, Jared’s and the Tap Room were the “hub” of downtown activity, especially during the off-season when tourists were gone and year-round Nantucketers remained.

“They miss those things very, very much,” Read said. “It’s sad.”

Read started operating the Coffin House when he was 29 years old, running it for 10 years before he purchased the building from Walter Beinecke, a major land owner on the island for years who later moved to Newburyport and served as a mentor to Karp and also to Chuck and Ann Lagasse, the Newburyport couple that manages Karp’s local property.

The now 70-year-old Read said he made owning and operating the hotel, restaurant and bar a lifestyle.

“It has been my life. And I loved it,” he said. “I looked forward to going to work every day.”

Read sold the property in 2004, when Karp bought it for $8,000,001.

Another interested buyer had offered $8 million for the property, but Karp had the right of first refusal through acquiring other Nantucket properties from Winthrop Financial Associates and Beinecke.

“All he had to do was match any offer that I received, and he choose to,” Read said.

Many islanders question why Karp and his management team shut down the restaurant and bar. Neither Karp nor his property manager on Nantucket returned phone calls from The Daily News.

When it was first announced that the Tap Room would close, Karp’s representatives said it was going to be a face-lift and that it would be open by the next summer, the Nantucket Inquirer and Mirror reported.

But just this month, the newspaper reported that the Tap Room has been “decommissioned,” meaning it will not open for at least two years. The room was gutted.

“They don’t understand why he did it,” Read said. “Maybe the restaurants were not making money.”

Read said that they did lose some money during some of the winters. But he said he bought the place at a realistic price and they were a year-round establishment that offered stable employment, so he didn’t have to gouge tourists.

“Obviously, we didn’t lose money for 38 years, we would have never lasted,” he said. “It generated some real good business year-round. We really became the island’s inn during the holidays.”

Author Robert Mooney, who wrote “Nantucket Only Yesterday: An Island View of the Twentieth Century,” said the Jared Coffin House was one of the only places year-round residents could grab a bite to eat during the winter.

“Karp’s changed that all around,” he said. “He’s turned the Jared Coffin House into a bed and breakfast. He seems to have a total disregard for the needs of the island.”

Grant Sanders, a Nantucket resident who also runs an online forum called YackOn.com where Karp is often a hot topic, said the popularity of the Tap Room was so great that another business a couple doors down expanded. That business, called Goodfellas, is another basement-level bar and restaurant that capitalized on the popularity of its neighbor.

Place said it isn’t just the fact that the island’s downtown is down a restaurant and a pub. The closing is also affecting retail. He said the restaurant and bar would attract 100 people or more a night, and when they were done with drinks, finished with dinner and ready to go, the diners would fan out across town, entering shops and buying products.

“That business to area retailers is now gone,” he said.

Unlike others, Place does think he knows what Karp will do with the Jared Coffin House: make them into condominiums, a move Karp is known for on the island.

“Why else would you close down that restaurant?” he said.