Building a business on Shelter Island has been a little like climbing Mount Everest for Melina Wein, who founded her own real estate brokerage here in 1998, seven years after she and her husband Marc made their climb to the 18,000-foot base camp on their honeymoon.
“I didn’t start out really planning to be here or there or at some point in five years,” she said of her first days after hanging out her shingle as a broker. “It was really like climbing Everest. You take every step and see where the next one will get you.”
The business trajectory has been ever higher, she said. The mountain ascent, on the other hand, got her a case of altitude sickness. “Above 16,000 feet, my body went into shock,” she said, but she made it with Marc’s help. Her firm has made it, too, in a way she believes might not have been possible in the Hamptons, where big regional firms dominate the real estate business.
Four years after their marriage, when she and Marc decided to move here from Manhattan in 1996, she had no thoughts of going into real estate — but she knew she had to do something, “not only financially, but because I like to work.” He suggested real estate as a business that can be conducted outside the big city infrastructure. She agreed to give it a try, earning her license and going to work for Griffing & Collins.
By then, she’d long since fallen in love with Shelter Island, to which Marc had introduced her as soon as they started dating. It reminded her in many ways of her grandparents’ place on Mount Desert Island in Maine, where she’d happily spent some of her childhood summers.
She’d also spent time in Europe, where her family had its roots. Her Dutch mother lost members of her family to the Nazis before she’d been able to make it to the United States after the war. Her maternal grandmother, a Christian who’d married an Orthodox Jew, worked in the Dutch resistance during the occupation.
Her adopted father, Victor Wyler, whom Melina’s mother married when Melina was two, is Swiss. He had come to the States before the war. An attorney, he ran family corporations that included a watch manufacturer.
Melina, born in Manhattan in 1962, was one of five kids. After the family moved to Westchester, she attended Rye Country Day, graduating in 1980. She was a jock. “I loved sports,” she said, excelling in field hockey and tennis.
Then on to Skidmore College, where she majored in English history and minored in art history, graduating in 1984. From there, “I did what I think everybody tried to do: go to New York and get an apartment.”
She started work as a secretary at an advertising firm and soon advanced to assistant account executive, working with Johnson & Johnson on feminine products for a while, “not the most exciting topic.” But she “went on to dealing with the liquor market at that time, which was in a funk. And all of a sudden wine coolers hit the market.”
She took a job at McAdams Group, travelling across Canada and later Europe before moving on to “educational special products,” which involved advising doctors.
Melina wasn’t into blind dates, but a physician on staff asked if she’d meet a friend of his for a date, a man who owned an independent TV studio in Manhattan. It took a while for them to meet. When they finally did, “We had a great date, got engaged three months later and married six months after that,” Melina said.
“Marc had a dream to climb to the base camp at Everest and I agreed to go with him; that was our honeymoon.” They trained by entering stair-climbing competitions in the city, wearing hiking boots and backpacks loaded down with books, and running in marathons, including the 10K on Shelter Island, where Marc had the Ram Island harborside home in which the couple would later move and raise their two kids.
Son Everest, born within the year after the big climb, and daughter Shelter, born one year later on the same day, are now 21 and 20, Everest entering his senior year at Hobart and Shelter her junior year at Connecticut College.
Their daughter’s name is proof enough the Weins love the Island. For a better environment in which to raise their kids, they decided to move here in 1996, before the kids were old enough to be too involved in school, sports and other activities. They still have their place in the city.
Marc, busy with his TV studio, until recent years went into town at least four or five days a week. He’s cut back on city trips and now puts in time as president of the Ram Island Association and a member of the town’s Waterways Management Advisory Council.
Melina served for 13 years on the board of the Shelter Island Public Library. Before knees became an issue, the Weins always ran in the 10K, making it the centerpiece of a 50th birthday party for Marc soon after they moved here. They invited 100 friends who had to run (or at least walk), “with no excuses.”
Rowing, sailing, motor boating and ice boating when Coecles Harbor freezes have all been important parts of their lives here. So has conservation. Melina cited the Group for the East End as well as the Mashomack Preserve, Sylvester Manor and the Peconic Land Trust as vitally important organizations she and Marc support.
Real estate was “not something I thought I’d ever do” but she loves it, she said, because it allows her to meet interesting people and gives her some flexibility: “It’s very much full-time but it’s not necessarily 9 to 5.” Another plus was having her office right across the street from school when her kids were there.
“It was hard and it still is hard to some extent,” she said of her business, especially in the years after the 2008 downturn. “Like anything else, you have to work hard to reap the benefits and I’m extremely fortunate because I’ve got great people working for me and wonderful people who’ve been our clients as well as customers.” Once a one-woman operation, the office now includes six full-time agents and two part-timers, plus a full-time administrative assistant.
Speaking of starting up years ago, she said, “If you were responsive and got back to people, and you were honest with them and you learned your stuff, about the Island, the houses, the zoning rules and all the rest, you couldn’t go wrong if you were committed time-wise.”
To her customers, Melina always tries to send a message: “If you want to come to Shelter Island because you love it so much, understand what you love and find a way to give back and be part of it.”