About 10 years ago Betsy Grater found herself with too much house. As her daughters went off to college and career, the four-story townhouse that the family owned in Bolton Hill seemed to grow larger and larger.
Then a friend saw an advertisement for a bed and breakfast reservation service. "She said, 'That's what you ought to do. You ought to do bed and breakfast,' " Ms. Grater recalls.
"I thought that was a neat idea. And because I was working full time back then, the idea of using a reservation service to bring me business made sense. It would be just one phone call rather than a lot of phone calls."
It was an idea that grew. It not only filled up her house but also changed her life and career. She started with one room, then added a second, then a third. Then she bought Amanda's Bed and Breakfast Reservation Service, expanding it to 150 listings, and then, beginning three years ago, she started teaching classes through two local community colleges to others interested in starting a bed and breakfast.
"You meet such wonderful, fun people that it's worth the work and the interruptions," she says.
Called Betsy's Bed & Breakfast, the house is now an example of what she calls a "private home," a bed and breakfast that has fewer than six rooms and is not large enough to advertise or to provide a full-time income.
It's a traditional Bolton Hill townhouse with a central stairway winding up four floors to a skylight. But Ms. Grater uses the front room as the dining room instead of the parlor. The back room, flooded with light from two huge windows with French doors, is now the living room.
Although there are six fireplaces with marble mantels throughout the house, the one in the living room is the only one that has been restored to working condition. "With four floors of flue and work, it was an expensive proposition."
The house is decorated with a combination of family antiques, collected pieces and traditional furniture. Ms. Grater's love of old textiles is evident in every room. Above the sofa in the living room hangs a quilt made by her grandmother, begun when she was just 5 years old. On another wall is an TC antique coverlet and on another, a framed piece of antique petit point.
Large framed brass rubbings, which Ms. Grater did while she lived in England for two years, line the entrance hall, just above an old church pew. A collection of old and antique kitchen utensils hangs in the hallway just outside the kitchen door.
Each bedroom in the bed and breakfast part of the house has its own bathroom. But each still retains the feel of a private home with displays of family collections, including old toys and a doll house.
"I think the extra little things around kind of bring it together and make it more homey and give it a much more warm atmosphere," she says.
Downstairs in the basement, Ms. Grater has turned the room that was originally the kitchen into the office for Amanda's Bed and Breakfast Reservation Service. Her husband, Bill Cavanaugh, helped her get it organized and computerized. "He helps with the business end of things, but he's not particularly interested in the bed and breakfast. He's happy staying on the sidelines."
The office still has the original cast-iron cookstove from the days when it was a kitchen. And off to the side is the dumbwaiter, no longer working but once used to send food up to the dining room upstairs.
Her guests are tourists who come to visit the harbor, businesspeople (many of whom return on a regular basis) or people coming to conventions, and parents of students at Maryland Institute.
Because she constantly talks to the owners of the bed and breakfasts in her reservation service, she has a unique overview of the industry. Overall it seems only slightly affected by the slumping economy, she says. "My bookings for 1991 were well up over 1990s'.
"Toward the end of the year I found that if people were given the choice of two rooms and there was a difference in the price, that they were taking the lesser of the two prices, whereas there have been times when they wouldn't hesitate to take the more expensive one."
Opening a bed and breakfast is the dream of many people, Ms. Grater has found. She gets 25 to 30 calls every year from people asking for advice. And of the students in her courses, six have already launched their own bed and breakfast places and several more are just finishing up their preliminary work.
She teaches her course -- a one-day course called "How to Open and Operate a Bed and Breakfast" -- twice at year at Essex and Prince George's community colleges. One of the first things she does in the class is present a slide show to illustrate the different types of bed and breakfast. "That's what people don't understand usually, that there's such a variety of styles of places."
A bed and breakfast can be anything from an extra room to a small hotel, she says.
The ones most publicized are often the ones that are historic houses filled with antiques. But there are also many much-smaller ventures. "There's the empty-nest kind of thing where people just have rooms to spare. In that case it's more pocket money rather than anything that they can count on."
And for these people, she says, it's often done as much for the fun of meeting new people as it is for the extra income.
It takes a certain kind of personality to run a bed and breakfast, she says. "You have to like people and to be willing to open your door to strangers. But more often than not you feel like they're a friend before they leave, even if they just stay one night."