Innkeeper Bill Schmickle turns on classical music and leads Ted and Bobbie Herring to the dining room. It's 8:30 a.m. Breakfast time.
As Charlotte Schmickle serves squares of egg casserole with sausage links, Bill tells his guests how he and his wife of 30 years came to be making breakfast for strangers in a large Victorian home in downtown Annapolis.
It's an icebreaker, a story the Schmickles often share during the mornings at the Flag House Inn bed and breakfast. It's a tale that begins when their son was a Naval Academy plebe and when Bill and Charlotte were guests here themselves, looking for a change.
"We took a picture of him on the front porch on induction day, never imagining his graduation photo would be on the same porch," Bill says. "We love it, and we've never looked back."
Bill, a political science professor, and Charlotte, a nurse, gave up careers at a small North Carolina college for a chance to live in Annapolis and run the Flag House. On St. Patrick's Day weekend in 1997, the couple joined an avocation that celebrates old-fashioned hospitality, where the house is open to strangers and the morning meal drives the daily routine.
The Flag House is one of about 20 B&Bs; in the state capital, most of them on the historic district's narrow streets, near the Naval Academy, the State House and the Main Street shops. The inn, a tan, three-story, 19th-century home with shuttered windows, dormers and a wide front porch lined with flags, sits between the academy gates and City Dock.
Here, Charlotte, 54, is the foundation, and Bill, 56, is the flair. She takes reservations and makes breakfast and beds. He decorates the home in striking fabrics, and is the one most often schmoozing with the guests.
Last weekend, the Herrings were joined by their friends the Chicoines, a middle-aged couple also there for the academy's Founder's Day Ball. Kevin and Karen Carr of Cleveland, whose son is a midshipman, were visiting the inn for the seventh time. Ann Agnew and Trey Lundy, a 1996 academy graduate, were headed to a friend's wedding in Washington. Before they left, they would be planning a wedding of their own.
At a B&B;, every morning begins like the last and every afternoon demands the same chores. But the Schmickles have developed a system that makes this life work. They keep a section of the house private. They organize. They prepare.
The work that culminates in Saturday's breakfast begins the day before.
By 4:30 p.m. Friday, Charlotte is setting two dining room tables with brightly colored Portuguese china for the next morning's meal.
She gets as much done in advance as possible so she doesn't have to wake at dawn. In the large kitchen on "their side" of the house, Bill chops oranges and grapefruit for Saturday's fresh fruit bowls. Apples stew in a crock pot to go with Sunday's waffles. Charlotte often bakes muffins the night before, a trick that has saved breakfast twice when the electricity went out in the morning.
In Annapolis, the only food or drink B&Bs; can serve is breakfast. That's fine with Charlotte.
"You have to have some sort of life," she says.
At 5:45 p.m., Nadine Chicoine and her husband, Rene, a retired naval captain and a program manager with an engineering firm, check in. Bill parks their car in the back as Charlotte welcomes them.
The Chicoines, from St. Mary's County, last stayed at the Flag House about a decade ago, shortly after the former owners converted a duplex into a B&B.;
"Why, you are a different person!" Nadine croons as she is greeted by Charlotte.
Charlotte shows them the guest parlor, where four red leather chairs surround a table covered with brochures and books about Annapolis. She takes them into the dining room, explains that breakfast is served from 8:30 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. and notes their choice of drinks. In the hallway, they linger over a photo of Charlotte and Bill's son on a Naval Academy sailboat, one of several decorations in the inn with nautical or patriotic themes.
Before escorting the Chicoines to their room, one of five upstairs that cost $160 to $200 a night, Charlotte shows them the white folding doors marked "private." These doors separate the Schmickles' living room from the inn's foyer and guest parlor. Though she tells guests that the doors are there to keep in Sparky, their 10-year-old Shetland sheepdog, she later admits that they primarily serve to keep guests out.
"We need personal space," Charlotte says. "I couldn't do this kind of work and be with my guests all of the time. My guests may be here two, three nights, but we are here 365 days a year."
Their living room, where they can most often be found by guests, is as impeccable as the public areas of the house. But behind the closed door of their small first-floor bedroom, a queen-sized bed that nearly takes up the room remains unmade in late afternoon.
Upstairs, in a suite kept for visits by their two grown sons, the innkeepers store their linens and their clutter. The bathroom has a whirlpool tub - the only tub in the house - yet Charlotte has never used it. In the basement, Bill's projects - decorative radiator covers and individually designed cornices and drapes - are stacked around an unused fitness machine.
The Herrings arrive about 7 p.m. After welcoming them, Charlotte heads to the kitchen to prepare salad and spaghetti for her and Bill. With guests arriving throughout the afternoon, she seldom has time for elaborate meals.
After dinner, it's back to preparing for breakfast. She fills the coffee pot and sets the timer for morning. She sets out the carafes, pitchers and fruit bowls. Then she slices a loaf of Irish soda bread from a local bakery.
"I don't claim to be a great bread baker or pastry chef, but I can run a good B&B; that my guests enjoy," she says.
While guests are out on the town, Bill and Charlotte find some quiet time. They relax for a few hours in the living room before Charlotte returns to the kitchen at 10:30 p.m. to make a simple breakfast casserole with cheese, eggs, milk, spices and croutons. In the morning, she'll just have to bake it.
Bill then takes down the flags as Charlotte dims the lights and closes the shades. It's a quiet end to another busy day - exactly five years since they opened the inn in 1997.
For the Schmickles, running a B&B; is not the realization of a lifetime dream. Bill, now an adjunct professor at the Naval Academy, was chairman of his department at Guilford College in Greensboro, N.C., where he taught for 21 years. Charlotte, a former intensive-care nurse, ran the school's student health department for 13 years.
In 1995, they discovered the Flag House Inn while visiting the Naval Academy with their oldest son, Andrew, now 24. When they came for his induction ceremony, this is where they stayed.
During Andrew's first year at the academy, Bill spent a sabbatical in Washington and stayed several nights at the inn to visit him. On one visit, the owners mentioned they were thinking of selling.
When Bill worked up the nerve to tell Charlotte that he wanted to buy the B&B;, all she could do was laugh. She had been thinking about a new job, but not a new career. Bill, who specialized in Soviet economic relations, was in a tenured position at the college, but his interest was waning.
They struggled with the decision for six months, weighing the risks of leaving their jobs before earning retirement.
They bought the Flag House and opened the next week, on March 15, 1997. Two days later, Bill returned to North Carolina so their youngest son, Greg, now 22, could finish high school there.
For a year and a half, Charlotte ran the B&B; mostly by herself. At first, she made pancakes, waffles or French toast nearly every morning, causing Bill to nickname the inn "The House of Syrup." About a month after the opening, a chef checked in for a weeklong stay - inspiring Charlotte to vary her menu. Now, she never serves two syrup dishes in a row.
With her egg casserole waiting in the refrigerator, Charlotte rises at 7 a.m. on Saturday. She makes her way through the house, turning on the lights. She finishes chopping bananas and strawberries for the fruit bowls, then puts the casserole in the oven.
Charlotte's own breakfast is the same each day: an English muffin with honey and a cup of tea.
Just after 8 a.m. Bill goes to his collection of 90 flags and selects which ones will be displayed out front: Marine Corps and North Carolina flags for Trey Lundy, a Kansas flag for Ann Agnew, an Ohio flag for the Carrs, a Maryland flag for the Chicoines and the Herrings, and the U.S. flag. As Charlotte removes the casserole, Bill takes drinks to the dining room and switches on the soothing music that lets guests know breakfast is ready.
The Herrings sit at the smaller table, which belonged to Bill's parents when he was a child. In the kitchen, Bill eats a quick bowl of cereal with blueberries, then returns to the dining room to chat with guests about the B&B; and the academy.
At 9 a.m., the Carrs take seats at the larger table, which Charlotte and Bill used when they raised their sons.
As Charlotte serves her casserole, Kevin Carr says, "This is one of my favorites."
She replies: "You've been here enough that you've had everything."
Soon, the Chicoines come to sit with the Herrings. Ann Agnew and Trey Lundy take seats opposite the Carrs.
As on most days, the guests all have ties to the academy. Ted Herring and Rene Chicoine, both 56, are 1967 graduates.
"Trey went to the Naval Academy and wanted to show me Annapolis," Ann, a lawyer, tells the Carrs. What she doesn't know is that Trey, a Marine Corps pilot, also brought her here to propose.
As Bill chats about politics and the Navy with the Herrings and the Chicoines, Ann and Trey explain to the Carrs that they've been trying all morning to figure out the time of the Washington wedding they are headed to. They've been calling friends and members of the groom's squadron with no luck.
While her guests finish eating, Charlotte cleans the kitchen. Then she responds to e-mail inquiries about the B&B.;
By 10:10 a.m. the dining room is empty, and most of the guests have headed to Main Street to shop. Bill loads the dishwasher and the couple settles down in the kitchen to read the newspaper. They walk their dog on the academy grounds and then change into their cleaning clothes to straighten the rooms. Bill tackles the bathrooms. Charlotte makes the beds.
About 1:40 p.m., they sit down for lunch. A few minutes into their meal, a car pulls into the driveway - tonight's guests arriving early. Charlotte springs from the table. The guests' room has not been vacuumed yet. As Bill goes for the door, she bounds upstairs to finish cleaning.
When she returns, it's time to do laundry. She throws towels and sheets in the two sets of washers and dryers. Then she joins Bill to catch the last five minutes of a Duke basketball game - his alma mater, where they met when she was taking classes there.
They sit and reminisce about life at the B&B.; For Charlotte, the toughest part is waking up at the same time each morning. She overslept once, and vows that will never happen again.
For Bill, running the inn allows him to indulge one of his passions: interior design. He says it's easy to spend $25,000 to $35,000 a year on the house, changing the decorations and remodeling.
At first, they were worried about their guests: Would they return drunk and loud at night? Would their checks bounce? Would they steal things? Bill checked the silver regularly, but not anymore. He says their guests have "renewed his faith in humanity."
One day, they'll scale back the B&B;, maybe open it just half the year or on weekends. But for now they are enjoying the chance to meet interesting people and help them have a good vacation.
"I enjoy the downtime when guests aren't here, but I look forward to having them here again," Bill says.
Soon, Charlotte will set the tables, preparing for another breakfast.