Ray Ewing


Let Me Give You Some Free Advice

For day-trippers to Oak Bluffs, it doesn’t take long to find out what they need to know.

Are you one of those Vineyarders who sees visitors to the Island as your enemy, who says, “Oh, hell, another summer, more tourists.”? Meet feisty, fiery (but also friendly) Leo Gagnon, who manages the visitor information kiosk in Oak Bluffs. Gagnon, seventy-five, is one of four retired Islanders who staff the kiosk from mid-May, when the Steamship Authority starts running ferries to Oak Bluffs, until mid-October. The other three are: Peter Hart, sixty-six; Judy Searle, eighty-one; and Alex Palmer, seventy-seven. All are knowledgeable and outgoing. Gagnon jokes, “My wife says, ‘You’d talk a dog off a meat wagon.’” Searle laughs: “As my husband says, ‘I love to tell people where to go.’”

Gagnon just wants to do as good a job for visitors as possible. He tries to anticipate their questions: “I’m a history nut. I do a lot of research.” And he expects the kiosk’s operation to be business-like: he’s pitched the Oak Bluffs Association (OBA) to reinstall cellphone coverage to overcome the dead zone that exists there, and he’s constantly encouraging businesses to provide a sufficient number of brochures or a QR code. (He mentions a museum that brought only twenty-five brochures, “That’s going to last about two hours.”)

Perhaps his desire to be business-like comes from working in business. Raised in Nashua, New Hampshire, he went to work at nineteen for BAE Systems, a global defense and aerospace security solutions company (“90 percent of my work was classified,” he says). The father of his wife was born in Edgartown and she spent every summer on the Vineyard. Gagnon smiles, “I had no choice where I was going to live.” They bought a house in 1999 and moved here year-round in 2009 upon his retirement. When not at the information booth, he grows vegetables and herbs, tends to ten chickens (six lay eggs), and enjoys a toy train layout in his basement.

Gagnon pulls out a chart of visitors to the information booth from the tourist seasons for 2010 through 2022. Prior to Covid-19, the booth recorded 40,000 to 49,000 visitors annually, with 2015 the highest total: 49,290. In 2020, during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, only 12,092 people visited the booth. This season, with fourteen cruise ships scheduled to dock in Oak Bluffs, Gagnon says, “I think this is going to be a gangbuster year.”

Gagnon bases his advice about what to see on the time the visitor has available. An $8 all-day pass ($5 for seniors) on Vineyard Transit Authority buses provides inexpensive access to Edgartown, Vineyard Haven, and up-Island. Gagnon offers good advice for not only tourists. As a year-rounder, I was surprised when he mentioned two attractions I had never visited – the Carnegie Heritage Center in Edgartown (I hadn’t heard of it) and the fourteen-acre, Japanese-style Mytoi garden on Chappaquiddick (I hadn’t remembered it). Now that I’ve visited, I put them near the top of my Vineyard must-see list.

When you stop by the information kiosk, open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., the first thing you notice is a sign that reads: “Tips for Tuition.” The word “Tuition” has a line through it, replaced by the word “Geritol.” But the four information booth staffers, who average seventy-five years of age, don’t strike me as old. They have youthful personalities and senses of humor. Hart, whose grandfather Albion G. Hart staffed the booth in the 1980s and ’90s, greets visitors, “Welcome to Nantucket.” In a good year, the four staffers, who work an average of fifteen hours per week, each take home $350 in tips at the end of the summer in addition to their $15-per- hour pay.

Gagnon says 99 percent of visitors’ questions are straightforward: where’s a bathroom, a coffee shop, a restaurant, a museum? But some questions are more unusual. What are the regulations for using metal detectors on Vineyard beaches? (No restrictions.) Given the Island’s name, Martha’s Vineyard, where is a local winery? (There hasn’t been one in over a decade.) What’s the street address of the Obamas’ Edgartown home? (Don’t know.) Searle adds, “[The Obamas and other celebrities] live here because we leave them alone.”

When there aren’t tourists around, the feisty, fiery Gagnon is happy to offer unsolicited advice to the leaders of the Island’s town governments and attractions. First, he says, they should acknowledge that tourism drives the Vineyard economy and coordinate hours and activities as if they really cared about visitors. On May 16, he says as an example, when the cruise ship Celebrity Summit arrived in Oak Bluffs with approximately 2,200 visitors aboard, the public bathrooms next to the Steamship Authority office were closed and the Camp Ground’s Cottage Museum was not scheduled to open until Memorial Day weekend. Second, they should show that they value the information kiosk staffers and give them a raise. But when the OBA asked the Oak Bluffs Finance Committee for a cost of living increase, they refused. 

Still, Gagnon calls his kiosk job “the best. You meet people from all over the world.” And they appreciate him. An English couple, Nigel and Susan Wilkin, wrote to the OBA: “We owe Mr. Gagnon much that we cannot repay….What a great ambassador for tourism at Martha’s Vineyard.”            

Comments (2)

Lorna Gerrard Sauter
Great article. My dad, Randy Gerrard, worked in the booth years ago and Al Hart was his 'boss'!! He loved working there and even set up an information booth annex on our cottage front porch at 1 Bayliss Ave. in the campground! Such wonderful memories!
November 5, 2023 - 8:38pm
Gail Avakian
Great article! Yes, the Vineyard seems lacking in the necessary creature comforts! More bathrooms in every town. On a recent trip to Halifax, bathrooms were literally everywhere, open and very clean.
January 14, 2024 - 10:21am