The Capri Motel is a twelve-roomer, settled on the strip of a four-lane highway that connects East Tennessee’s fastest-growing city (Johnson City, population 55,000) to the state’s oldest (Jonesborough, population 4,100). Half a mile north of the Goodwill Store and three-quarters of a mile south of Crowder’s VAC and GUN, the Capri is a one-story affair made distinctive by its fifties neon sign. Its competitor, the Johnson Inn, which sports a much larger sign boasting LUXURY FOR LESS, hopes to lure travelers with its blue-bottomed swimming pool (which is roughly the size of a king-sized bed) and in-room microwaves (which may be rented for an additional fee).The Capri Inn doesn’t make specious promises of luxury or bythe- hour rates. It’s a quiet, simple, and clean motel, so respectable that the owner, Eleanor Thomas, lives in a gray and white frame house right on the motel’s threeacre lot. If customers come by and there is no one in the tidy office, they only have to ring the bell and Mrs. Thomas will come trotting across the yard.
The Capri Hotel has been in operation since at least 1974, the year that Mrs. Thomas and her husband migrated from the city of Erwin, about ten miles south. The young couple bought the motel from a “real nice husband and wife,” who not only supervised the construction of the motel, but built much of the furniture that still decorates the rooms. The two-drawer dressers and luggage racks are coated with at least a half-inch of protective varnish. Mrs. Thomas runs her fingers over thick grooves etched into the surface of the handmade, if not lovely, furniture. “Some people can’t seem to resist the urge to carve their initials into things.”
She brightens, gesturing toward a wall hanging that looks to be a framed rectangle of patterned cloth depicting two men fishing in a canoe. A large bass leaps from the polyester stream. “See that,” she says, “it’s antique. A couple came through here selling these a long time ago. On the better ones, things like the fish would be stuffed, so it sort of stood out from the frame. Those were more expensive, you know. But they were sure beautiful.”
Times have changed quite a bit since the Thomases bought the hotel. When they started, rooms were available at the rate of $7 a night or $42 for a week’s stay. Now one night’s rest in the small rooms which, according to a portable marquee on the yard, feature “T.V./HBO/air cond rms” goes for $40. The small bathrooms have been remodeled, now offering a small bench in each fiberglass shower stall. “You can set yourself down while you’re washing up.” Other things have remained constant. “I never did install telephones in the rooms,” says Mrs. Thomas. “That used to cause problems for the salesmen. I used to have to open up the office every morning at seven to let them use the phone. But now, everybody has their cell phones and nobody bothers much about there not being phones in the rooms.” Another constant is her regular customers. “People who have relatives staying at the VA hospitals. They always come back to stay with us. I met my best friend that way. A nicer person I never met.”
The motel business has slowed down over the years, but there are three weekends when complete occupancy is guaranteed: the two NASCAR weekends and the weekend of the Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, which happens to coincide with the Erwin Apple Festival. Mrs. Thomas, who is always too busy working to attend the festivals, is hoping to sell the business. “I talked to a fellow from Africa who wanted to maybe buy it. He already owns a hotel in Erwin, but he says a person needs two motels in order to make a living these days.” Mrs. Thomas looks at a photo of the four extra rooms she and her late husband added ten years ago. “Maybe he’s right,” she says. “But for me, it’s been a good life.”