Guests Like B&Bs’ Personal Touch

By JACOB ADELMAN Special to the Planet
Tuesday February 03, 2004

The city’s bed and breakfasts—generally houses long inhabited by homeowners-turned-innkeepers who decided they had room to spare for short-term visitors to the city—offer a more personalized experience than a hotel, many guests say.  

“A hotel is a cold environment,” said Luiz Fernando Barella, a 17-day guest at north Berkeley’s Brown Shingle B&B. “Here we’re treated like family.”  

Barella, who had come from Sao Paolo, Brazil, with his wife to visit family in Berkeley, said innkeeper Helen Christensen had been generous with her time, bringing the couple with her to a New Year’s Eve party and offering abundant sightseeing advice.  

“This is a historical place,” said Barella, whose windows offered views of architect Bernard Maybeck’s Temple of the Wings up the hill, as well as the UC Berkeley campus down below. “If you don’t know what to look for, you miss a lot of things.”  

B&Bs are especially convenient for people visiting family or friends, since they offer guests a place to stay in the same neighborhoods as the folks they’re seeing, said Wendy Sprague, 52, who accommodates guests in her home near the Berkeley-Albany border.  

The inns also place guests close to neighborhood shops and markets that might be overlooked by visitors staying in centrally located hotels. “Being part of the community is a real draw,” said Sprague, who will soon have her living room transformed into a second guest room for her Brick Path Bed and Breakfast.  

But the biggest draw, B&B owners agree, is personal attention. “It’s more intimate,” said Sprague. “It’s more personal. You have contact with an individual instead of a person who works for a company.”  

Sprague and other owners say that getting to know their guests is their favorite part of running a bed and breakfast.  

“The best part of the bed and breakfast is meeting people,” said Mary Harrow, who runs Mary’s Bed and Breakfast in her home on a quiet street in Elmwood. “You meet people you really get to like.”  

Most of Berkeley’s bed and breakfasts are run by older retirees whose grownup children have left behind empty rooms they can rent to supplement their incomes. Many are women whom divorce has left alone in large homes they’d have trouble affording to maintain on their own, said Christensen.  

“Several ladies found themselves alone in a big house and didn’t want to move, but we still have to pay for the gardener and the general maintenance of the house,” said Christensen, who began taking guests into her home after separating from her husband a decade ago.  

Taking in guests also brings some life into the grand north Berkeley or Elmwood homes that would otherwise feel empty.  

“It didn’t take me long to go from saying ‘No I don’t want strangers in the house’ to ‘Hey, it’s kind of lonely,’” said Mary Leggett, remembering when the breakup of her marriage left her alone in her large half-timbered home in Elmwood she’s run as M’s Bed and Breakfast for the past seven years.  

Leggett now lives in an apartment she had built for herself in the basement to keep the bedrooms free for guests. But her living room is still the venue for the neighborhood Christmas party she’s held for the last 37 years for friends and longtime acquaintances.  

“A lot of it is people that have nice homes that are large and they’re empty,” said Berkeley visitors bureau president. “Having a bed and breakfast helps with their incomes and provides a service for people visiting Berkeley.”