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City Cousins: urban version of a cozy bed and breakfast

It's not exactly what you expect in a hotel.

Sure, there's the usual front office, replete with check-in desk and registration book. The innkeeper is a friendly, bewhiskered native New Englander who lives with his wife, children, and Alaskan huskie. The decor is early New England, with hand-sewn quilts on the walls, 18th-century tables, and a wooden ice chest with shiny brass strapping.

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Only one thing is missing in this hotel: the rooms.

None are at the central office here in the Massachusetts countryside - or even close. They're scattered across the Boston area like oases in an urban wilderness, for Mr. Ford-Webb's ''hotel'' is a network of carefully chosen homeowners and apartment dwellers willing to put up paying guests.

Some rooms are in homes tucked away on the cobbled back streets of stylish Beacon Hill. Some are in brick row-house apartments that line the gas-lamped streets of Boston's Back Bay. Others are in condominiums overlooking the Charles River. Uptown, downtown, in-town, out-town - if you're looking for a place to hole up, and at a reasonable rate, this hotel may have exactly the spot for you.

To make it all possible, Ted Ford-Webb has worked a bit of city sleight of hand. Urbanites of America's inner-city enclaves have gotten stereotyped as miserly, hoarders of privacy. But Ford-Webb has defied the stereotypes and ferreted out a multitude of neighbors with the accommodating spirit.

Many are veterans of the backpack-through-Europe generation. They know the good feeling of finding a warm hearth at a private home after a long day's journey, and want to return the favor. Others are professionals who travel, and want their apartments filled when they're away. Still others are simply hospitable housekeepers who enjoy some extraordinary company now and then, and who don't mind the extra money, either. (Hosts keep three-quarters of the guests' fee; rates vary.) All the arrangements are made by the man behind the registration desk here in Concord.

''I think people today want to travel just as much as they ever did,'' the bearded, casually dressed Ford-Webb says. ''But they're not interested in having two-thirds of their budget drained on accommodations. Others who travel on business and stay in hotels can find it very lonely. But staying in these urban homes is a different story. People really like finding a place where they can feel at home in the middle of the city, don't have to eat out if they don't want to, and still pay a price they can afford.''

Actually, the Ford-Webb enterprise, City Cousins, is part of the wider bed-and-breakfast (B&B) movement spreading across the nation. Until recently it seemed the B&B concept, a trademark of European tourism, would never take hold in the New World. But in recent years the financial pinch on homeowners and travelers alike has been fostering a change.

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Various regionwide services now list B&B accommodations. More recently, the big cities, which once seemed least likely to hop on the bandwagon, are plunging in. New York was first when a group called ''Urban Adventures'' set up an all-urban B&B reservation service three years ago.

Running your own urban hotel from a suburban headquarters, however, can pose difficulties.

How can an innkeeper know that his rooms are being kept in good shape? How can he anticipate the uneasiness customers may feel about arranging for a place over the phone? And how can he be sure that the guest will get a room he really likes, especially if that guest calls from across the country?

Ted and his wife, Jean, have worked out an elaborate procedure for getting to know both their hosts and guests, and then matching their interests. They seem to have honed this matchmaking act into a science.

Take, for instance, the case of Susan Turner of Colorado Springs, Colo. Ms. Turner works for the American Numismatic Association (the national organization of coin collectors). She met Ted Ford-Webb by phone, while making plans to attend the association's annual convention in Boston. About six weeks before the conference, she had received tourist information from the Boston Convention and Visitors Bureau. Among the literature was a letter from the Ford-Webbs about City Cousins. She decided to give it a whirl.

Not knowing what to expect, Turner was a mite anxious when she called Concord. She described her need - a place for herself and a colleague for two days, with freedom to come and go at any time of day.

''Despite my initial doubts,'' she said later from her Colorado Springs office, ''I was delighted to find Ted Ford-Webb so pleasant to talk to. Right off the top of his head he came up with choices for us: some one-bedroom apartments, others with two, all very reasonably priced. One sounded best. Only

''I hung up. My friend was amazed and said, 'Sounds fantastic! Call him back for the reservation!' ''

Once given the nod, Ford-Webb was back on the phone to talk to the host. (The apartment owner already knew the innkeeper, since Ford-Webb gets to know all his hosts well in advance of the renting process.) Ted reviewed the background of the prospective guests, their reason for visiting Boston, and his impressions of his conversation with them. (Legal risks are carefully spelled out to hosts in advance.)

Would the host want a reference check done on the renters? Ford-Webb asked. No need. Host likes the sound of guests. The deal is sealed.

After telling Turner the good news, Ford-Webb dropped her a registration form in the mail. She returned it with a deposit of one night's fee. Later she received directions to the house, details on getting the key - even where to find rolls and juice for breakfast.

Meanwhile, back at the front office, the Ford-Webbs are expanding. Their host list has been growing so rapidly that this fall City Cousins took on another couple as partners. With the list of hosts and callers soaring, Ted and Jean wanted to be certain that City Cousins would have enough personnel to keep its close personal touch with all the cousins.

''We thrive on the hometown feeling in these contacts,'' says Mr. Ford-Webb. ''After our initial contacts with the guests or hosts, we seem to develop a real sense of us. Oftentimes we wind up calling each other, not just to arrange accommodations, but just to see how things are going.''

But no hotel, it seems, is without its PR problems these days. For example, some of the business executives who attend Harvard seminars are so used to the royal treatment from luxury hotels that they have not meshed well with the cook-your-own approach of City Cousins hotelling.

With the ranks of City Cousins hosts swelling, and reservations streaming in from around the country, Ford-Webb is hardly fazed by the occasional mismatch. And although he ultimately wants to earn a law degree and practice law, the urban hotel world sorely tempts him to leave all else behind.

''You know, I worked very hard for 10 years in the office of the state secretary for human services. We designed some marvelous employment programs for welfare recipients, but saw many go down the tubes for political reasons. I worked very hard at the legislature on some very good legislation, and saw much go down . . . . I also did some thorough searches to find competent, promising people for state jobs, only to be frustrated often when less qualified people were hired for political reasons.

''But with City Cousins, I must say it's a kick to be doing something where the hard work is paying off. That feels awfully good.''

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