Woman who gave house new life is ready to give up reins
Phoenix's Metcalf House Hostel is a place filled with stories.
But here, in one of the Valley's only hostels, one story echoes the loudest.
It is the story of a woman who saw something in a beat-up house, on a beat-up street and spent 15 years drawing it out. It is the story of Sue Gunn, the hostel's owner, whose tale is one of passion and transformation. And it is the story with which the hostel may end.
After more than a decade of breathing life into this place, Gunn, 54, is beginning to tire. Visitors don't stop as often as they once did. It's a bit out of the way, just off Ninth and Roosevelt streets, on a stretch abandoned even by the buses and trains that once had stations nearby.
Still, Gunn is holding on to the hope this ending is nothing more than a new beginning.
Her own story begins in 1990, with two friends standing in front of a sign hanging at the Gentle Strength Co-op. It was a small paper thing, tacked to a bulletin board. Hardly worth a look. But it caught Gunn's eye.
The sign offered part-time work at the hostel. "I didn't even know there was a hostel in Phoenix," she says now, 17 years later. Most didn't. Most still don't. But at the time, the sign spoke to Gunn and changed her life. Because - this is where it all really begins - Gunn decided to take the job.
In 1992, things changed once more. Gunn had been working at the hostel for two years when the owner passed away. The Metcalf House was on the auction block. Thing is, hostels don't make that much money, and there weren't any promising buyers.
At the time, Gunn was also involved with a man she met at the hostel.
When he heard about the house's fate, the man made a bold suggestion: Why don't we try to buy it?
Gunn's father made a suggestion, too: "If you're going to do it, Sue, do it alone. Don't do it with anybody else."
So she and her father showed up at the auction in downtown Phoenix. They were the only two there. At $22,000, Gunn walked away triumphant. "A smokin' deal."
For the next 15 years, Gunn painted and dug and looked for the magic. Bit by bit she found it. She calls her search a "labor of love."
She built bunk beds. She redid the deck. She destroyed the lawn. She planted a garden of cactuses and bamboo. "The garden was my love," she says.
She experimented. Sometimes things didn't end up quite the way she planned. Sometimes she found out a little too late that "dirt takes up twice as much room once it's dug up" and that city officials don't much like it thrown on the sidewalk. But in the end, things always worked out.
Most of all, though, she collected stories.
"What's your story?" Everybody got that question from Gunn. She figured "everybody loves to tell their story," and she loved to hear them. She had them write their tales in logs. They became a living history of the hostel, a way for Gunn and travelers to have a look back.
"I met the most incredible people of my life in those 15 years," she says now that it's all over. "People used to tell me I was meant for this job. And I was."
But during the past two years, Gunn has slowed down. She has given much, and she can't give much more.
Her health continues to decline. Her energy levels are dropping, too. The place isn't so much a passion anymore as it is a chore.
Her friends, her family, they all say it's time to sell the place. "Just get rid of it. Pack it in now."
But Gunn doesn't want to.
It means too much. Every bit of her fills this place. Instead she has recruited friends to keep the place running while she waits.
She waits for someone crazy enough to make the hostel his or her life for only $45,000 a year.
She waits for the next Sue Gunn.