Brian Eslinger and David Hertel retrace the 22 years from their first date rather succinctly: “We shared an umbrella, breakfast and the rest of our lives.”
Though a couple for more than two decades, they waited to tie the knot until it was legal — as such, they’ll celebrate their fifth wedding anniversary April 28. They’re also celebrating another milestone: the fifth year of The Blackberry Inn, the bed and breakfast they own and operate in Watkins Glen, N.Y., in the Finger Lakes region.
Though their relationship has taken them to several corners of the country, they met in Philadelphia in 1996, the “old-fashioned” way: through a personal ad in Philadelphia Gay News.
Eslinger, who originally hails from northern New Jersey, worked at the Adam’s Mark Hotel at the time, and Hertel, a Philadelphia native, had recently moved to Phoenixville from the city. Both were looking to meet someone, outside the bar scene, and turned to PGN for such an opportunity.
“He said he was looking for commitment, a relationship, and that really struck me,” Hertel, 48, recalled about reading Eslinger’s ad. “It’s nice to meet someone and know that you want something long-term and not just a hook-up, and that came through in Brian’s ad.”
“I’m just a charming writer,” Eslinger, 58, laughed.
They talked on the phone for about a month before making plans to meet up Columbus Day weekend.
“At the time, there were no computers. You had to write to each other, you had to talk,” Eslinger said. “It wasn’t like today, where everything is instant, with pictures and cell phones.”
Despite a serious storm almost derailing their first date, the two went through with it — and said the connection they first felt on the phone instantly deepened.
“The minute I opened the door, there he was,” Eslinger said. “When you talk to someone for a month — and it wasn’t just ‘Hi, how are you?’ We would talk for a half-hour, an hour after work all the time — you’re already connected. I got to know him as a person but I had never seen him, so I opened the door and there he was in an LL Bean sweatshirt and it was raining horribly, but he just looked so adorable.”
The men had breakfast at a diner on Locust Street, which stretched on for two-and-a-half hours.
As their relationship progressed, they figured out ways to work around distance and work schedules: Hertel would stay with Eslinger at his Philadelphia apartment during the week, and Eslinger would spend weekends with Hertel in Phoenixville.
“We joked that we had our city apartment and our country house,” Eslinger laughed.
They moved in together in New Jersey and when a new job opportunity presented for Eslinger in Oklahoma, they prepared to make that move — on one condition.
“I’m thinking, Oh my God, I left my job to move to New Jersey and now I’m going to have to leave that job, so I’m not doing it unless I have a ring on my finger,” Hertel recalled. It was 1998 — before the time of marriage equality, or even civil unions — so the couple traveled to Christopher Street in New York City and had a pair of Claddagh rings commissioned by a gay jeweler.
“We made a commitment to one another to live our lives as one, as a married couple — no legal documents. It was just between David and I and God,” Eslinger said. “We made our commitment to never violate the integrity and dignity of who each other are.”
They say this promise kept their relationship strong for the past two decades, during which time they learned how to use their differences productively.
While opposites attracted in a way, the couple said, they always kept coming back to a shared dream: opening a bed and breakfast. They scouted locations in a number of states and, on a trip to New York, saw a sign for the Finger Lakes.
“We came to Watkins Glen and just fell in love with the feel,” Hertel said. “Between the lake and the wineries and the racetrack and the state park, there was just so much tourism to capitalize on.”
They were close to a deal on buying a house in the town but it fell through; they decided nonetheless to take an apartment in Ithaca while waiting for an opportunity — which came sooner than intended. While at the real-estate agent’s office, the agent mentioned that her mom was looking to sell her house in Watkins Glen. They went to see the property that very day and jumped at the chance. The house was a fixer-upper, but the couple was up for the challenge.
“It was a magnificent 1830s Greek-revival farmhouse, but it was in bad shape,” Eslinger said.
“It was a diamond in the rough,” Hertel added.
As the couple built up the house, they also built a network of LGBT friends. On their first night in town, Hertel went out to get food and struck up a conversation with a woman, who introduced him to her girlfriend. The couple ended up connecting them to the wide circle of LGBT residents in the area.
“We socialized with more gay people up here in Watkins Glen than we ever did in Philadelphia or outside of New York City in New Jersey,” Hertel laughed.
As they readied to open The Blackberry Inn, the couple, who had previously been joined in a civil union in New Jersey, decided they should officially marry, in part to solidify their business legally.
“I always said being married doesn’t change anything in terms of commitment and so forth but, I have to tell you, I was 100-percent wrong,” Eslinger said. “The feeling of being married … it was as if we were legitimate, our relationship was valued and recognized like any other person in the United States. I can’t tell you how much we felt the power of marriage equality.”
The couple married at their inn, surrounded by new friends and old. Shortly after, they opened and have spent the past five years building the business: It is now the number-one-rated B&B in Watkins Glen on TripAdvisor, out of 17 properties, and is also ranked in the top-five properties in Finger Lakes on customer service out of more than 300.
The couple makes it a point to build a good rapport with their guests — “They get a kick out of us,” Eslinger laughed — and each has their defined role in the business, including in the kitchen. Hertel is the baker and makes the sauces, and Eslinger cooks the French toast, eggs and meats. The couple has created eight menus, which rotate throughout the year, and they serve a three-course breakfast daily promptly at 8:30 a.m.
If they encounter any challenges in the business, they approach them like they do any issues in their relationship: jointly.
“Our journey has taken us on many roads, but we’ve always done it together,” Eslinger said. “We live our lives together. We support each other, we value each other’s strengths and we support each other through our weaknesses. That’s been key to our success.”
For more information about The Blackberry Inn, visit http://www.theblackberryinnbb.com/.