Harmon Brown, the octogenarian owner and proprietor of Brown’s Nostalgia in Ocean City, NJ, sips his coffee in the B and B’s quaint dining room, blinking like one of the old wise gulls standing on the pier two blocks away, as he tells a story that begins in Summer, 1975. That summer, he and his wife, vacationing in OC, stopped at a donut and breakfast shop. “They’d flip the donuts,” he says, “and put them on a serving tray, and people would dive in and grab at them. They were lunging in, they couldn’t wait.” At the time, it was an interesting thing to witness, but not any sort of vision—until that winter, when his wife elbowed him in the ribs one night in bed. “We could do that better,” she told Harmon. Within weeks, Harmon was down at the shore, knocking on doors, inquiring of shop-owners how to go about renting a space on the boardwalk. The space he rented presented immediate challenges, lacking a rear entrance, needing tons of interior cosmetic work. Its location was also, as they’d learn later, quite poor, situated off the end of the boardwalk, beyond where the boardwalk shoppers and walkers turn around to head back the other way. “I went to the lumberyard and got to work,” Harmon recalls.
Opening its doors the next summer, the walls covered in fresh paint, the fridges and ovens ready, a full staff of family members and friends ready to cook and serve, Brown’s Restaurant lacked only one thing: customers. Remembering the first difficult weeks, Harmon wipes sweat from his brow, fresh from having made our breakfast, “It was awful,” he said, “no-one even knew we were there.” After all their initial investment, of time, money, and sweat, it must have looked like a bust.
That is, until mid-summer, when the hulking shape of a whale came in from the ocean, and beached right in front of Brown’s Restaurant. “The TV crews were there every day,” Harmon recalls, looking out at the street at families lugging their boogie boards and chairs, making their way toward the ocean, “and people flocked in, just to get a peek at the stuck whale.” It wasn’t long before Harmon saw an opportunity, and ran, with a tray-full of donuts, out to the crowds: “Get your donut!” He shouted, hoisting the tray over his head on the beach: “It’s a whale of a donut!” And, gradually at first, people began taking them, one by one, two by two, from his hands. All day he was there, offering his whale-of-a-donuts to the hungry gawkers. Until, with a great deal of effort the local ocean crews helped budge the whale back out to sea. And just like that, the crowds, and his customers, were gone again.
Until, that is, the whale returned the next day, only to get stuck a second time, for a long time. And so returned the television cameras and the crowds. And his customers: who never left. More than 35 years later, Brown’s is one of the most popular destinations on the boardwalk; Brown’s award-winning donuts one of the treasures Ocean City visitors love to talk about, and eat.
Harmon’s son now runs Brown’s. “It has always bothered him that the walls are filled with certificates and prizes for Ocean City’s best donuts,” Harmon laughs, “because he knows there’s so much more to Brown’s quality and success than just donuts.” But this year, the Best Restaurant trophy came along.
After hearing Harmon’s story, my wife and I rode our bikes past Brown’s the next day. The place was packed, the counter stools were all occupied, and customers were handing over their cash, walking away with boxes of donuts.
It’s true there are many stories just like this, in business, in life, of those who persevered despite early struggles. Stories of those who kept working and struggling until things turned around. But what makes this story different, to me, is the whale: this huge, shimmering, lustrous embodiment of luck, this spouting reminder of Great Chance, which sometimes, finds its way in.
“Over every mountain,” said Theodore Roethke, “there is a path, although it may not be seen from the valley.” The way through is hardly ever visible. So often I don’t remember that. I stare at that mountain, trying to wish it away. Or want to stop walking entirely.
Now I will think of Harmon’s Whale in those early drafts of poems, which, however shiny and well-constructed they may be early on, or however haphazard and shoddy, lack the spirit that inhabits a successful poem, a poem that’s open for business. Dylan Thomas said “The best craftsmanship always leaves holes and gaps… so that something that is not in the poem can creep, crawl, flash or thunder in.”
I think of Harmon, undisturbed that his restaurant-to-be lacked an entrance—that within hours he was sawing open in the wall—to make a way in. He was making a place for people to come and go, not troubled by worrying if they would, or would not come. He could not see his failure, or his success. For what must have seemed an eternity, early on—from his own valley—he was faced with the very mountain Roethke described.
But, it wasn’t long before the path became visible. Before his whale thundered in.