Part of a continuing weekly series on local history by local historian David Reamer. Have a question about Anchorage history or an idea for a future article? Go to the form at the bottom of this story.
Alaskans have complicated relationships with chain stores, those retail and fast-food brands and franchises littered alongside our roads. On the one hand, they undermine locally owned stores and signal the loss of a unique cultural identity. The 1960 arrival of Woolworth’s forced the locally owned Leonard’s Variety Store to close. The local Caribou department stores, famous for Alaska’s first escalator, were bought by the national Montgomery Ward in 1966. The Outside owned and based Franz took the place of what had once been Spenard’s own Sunrise Bakery.
On the other hand, for a rapidly expanding city like Anchorage last century, the arrival of national chains was a form of recognition. Despite what it looks like, every town doesn’t get a Starbucks, let alone larger chains like Target or Walmart. And for all the local complaints, Anchorage residents show up in droves for a grand opening.
There were a few chains in even the earliest days of the city. K.A. Kyvig’s City Drug, later Anchorage Drug, opened in 1915 as a licensed Rexall franchise. In 1916, the Anchorage Daily Times asked readers to “patronize home industries” instead of supporting Outside businesses. Said the Times, “Every dollar you send outside, say to a mail order house, goes never to return. On the other hand, much of the money expended in town will remain in circulation, and you land a chance to get your fingers on it again.” The plea to shop local is likely familiar. People change slowly if at all.
A Piggly Wiggly grocery store opened in 1929. Anchorage was the fifth Alaska location for the grocery chain, after Ketchikan, Juneau, Petersburg and Cordova. Perhaps nothing better illustrates Anchorage’s relative unimportance in Alaska before World War II.
Cecil Wells brought the modern car dealership to Anchorage in the early 1930s, and a Sears Roebuck catalog order store opened downtown in 1938. However, the real retail innovation for 1930s Anchorage was the arrival of sliced bread. Sliced bread first went nationwide in 1930 with Wonder Bread. However, it took another seven-plus years for pre-sliced bread to reach Alaska. In December 1937, just in time for Christmas, Anchorage’s North Pole Bakery began offering sliced bread.
In 1967, Spenard’s Sunrise Bakery began baking and distributing Wonder Bread, the brand’s first entry into Alaska. The advertisements teased, “You’ve had in the Lower ’48, Now it’s available in Alaska.” This promise is the basis for every chain invasion of Alaska — the chance for locals to get the same stuff as those lucky Outsiders.
Arguably the most significant cultural touchstone in local history came with Anchorage’s first McDonald’s at Arctic and Northern Lights Boulevards. It opened on July 2, 1970, and was followed by a second location on DeBarr Road near Boniface Boulevard five months later. The DeBarr location was then the largest McDonald’s in the country. The downtown location that opened in 1976 was still larger.
The first official Burger King franchise in Anchorage opened five years later, in June 1975 at 38th Avenue and Old Seward Highway beside the University Center. Stress the word “official,” since there was a less legally named “Burger King” in mid-1960s Anchorage that went so far as to advertise its “Whopper” burgers. With their overwhelming opening crowds, both McDonald’s and Burger King set national sales records.
Church’s Chicken opened a store in Fairview in September 1970 at East 10th Avenue and Gambell Street, where the empty Senor Taco building is today. Mayor George Sullivan took part in the opening ceremony, trying his hand at some frying. For many years, it was a high school tradition to steal the rooftop chicken statue.
Other notable food franchise and grocery store arrivals in Anchorage include Dairy Queen in 1952, Safeway in 1960, Pizza Hut in 1969, Domino’s Pizza in 1985, Popeye’s Chicken in 1987, Subway in 1988, Starbucks in 1996 at Barnes and Noble, Olive Garden in 2012, Panda Express in 2015, and Dave and Busters in 2018.
The first major dry goods chain to set up shop in Anchorage was F.W. Woolworth, which opened on Nov. 14, 1960, inside a new two-story building at West Fourth Avenue and F Street. A copper box containing recent newspapers, photos and other ephemera was placed inside the cornerstone, replacing a similar box discovered during demolition. The Woolworth Building replaced what had been a local landmark, the three-story Masonic Temple Building that dated back to 1917. Today, what was Woolworth’s is a Polar Bear Gifts.
The first J.C. Penney department store on Fifth Avenue opened on March 21, 1963. The $1.5 million building, about $12.5 million in 2020 dollars, took the place of local mainstay Hoyt Motor Company. Nearby property values increased several-fold, and “Penney’s” instantly became a reference point for city navigation. Though the 1964 earthquake demolished the store, a larger building was quickly built on the same site.
Costco opened its first Anchorage store on Dimond Boulevard in 1984. In 1991, Costco opened a new location on DeBarr Road, but only after a lengthy battle with area residents. When first proposed, the Russian Jack location was designed as a simple warehouse. “It’s 414 feet long, 30 feet high and made of white sheet metal. It’s worse than ugly,” said then Russian Jack Community Council president Cheryl Clementson.
Forced into a public review by land-use restrictions, the Costco developers agreed to revamp the project with a more visually appealing design. The developers also offered to construct a new road that would funnel residential traffic away from the commercial site. As a joke, the lead developer named the new road San Clementson after his nemesis during the negotiations. “I go out of my way to drive down the street,” said Clementson at the time.
Other notable retail franchise arrivals in Anchorage include Fred Meyer in 1975 (after takeover and renaming of Valu-Mart), Nordstrom in 1975, Walmart and Kmart in 1993, Barnes and Noble in 1996, Home Depot in 1998, Best Buy in 2002, Bed Bath and Beyond in 2007, Target in 2008 and Walgreens in 2009.
[A trip to downtown Nordstrom was a fixture of Anchorage life for 44 years. Now, it’s going away.]
Another way to know how valuable chains are to a city is to remember the sadness, the bittersweet memories and the loss of jobs that accompanies their closure. If the arrival of a chain is an achievement, what does it say about Anchorage when chains choose to leave, as with both Sam’s Club locations in 2018? While these companies are not our friends, they are a part of our lives and community tapestry.
The list for chains that have abandoned Anchorage is steadily growing, including Woolworth’s in 1997, Rite Aid in 1998, Kmart in 2003, Waldenbooks in 2007, Borders in 2010, Toys 'R' Us in 2018, Payless and Nordstrom in 2019, and Pier 1 in 2020.
“Alaska Shoppers Poured into Tikahtnu Commons as Target Corp. Opened.” CIRI, October 1, 2008, ciri.com/alaska-shoppers-poured-into-tikahtnu-commons-as-target-corp-opened/.
“Burger King advertisement.” Anchorage Daily Times, March 26, 1966, 11.
“Business Profile: Restaurants Northwest Inc.” Alaska Journal of Commerce, March 2002.
“Ceremony Slated for Woolworth Building” Anchorage Daily Times, August 5, 1960, 18.
“Discount Store is Sold to Fred Meyer.” Anchorage Daily Times, August 8, 1975, 38.
Jordan, Nancy. “Endangered Beasties.” Anchorage Daily Times, October 25, 1989, E1, E8.
“McDonald’s Outlet Here is Biggest.” Anchorage Daily Times, November 17, 1970, 6.
Melzer, Bruce. “Costco Bows to Neighborhood Concerns.” Anchorage Daily News, March 22, 1991, C1.
Melzer, Bruce. “Local Watchdog Russian Jack Neighborhood Leader Takes on the Latest Development Plan.” Anchorage Daily News, March 26, 1991, B1.
“North Pole to Offer Bread All Sliced.” Anchorage Daily Times, December 21, 1937, 7.
“Patronize Home Industries.” Anchorage Daily Times, May 18, 1916, 2.
“Penney Store Opening Climaxes Year of Preparation, Planning.” Anchorage Daily Times, March 20, 1963, 23.
“Piggly Wiggly to Open Local Store.” Anchorage Daily Times, September 16, 1929, 5.
Pytte, Alyson. “Costco Warehouse Is Tied Up in Traffic.” Anchorage Daily News, May 22, 1991, D1.
Pytte, Alyson. “Road Clears Way for Costco Expansion Plan.” Anchorage Daily News, May 24, 1991, B4.
Richtmyer, Richard. “Retailer to Close 3 Stores.” Anchorage Daily News, January 11, 2007, F1.
“Sears Roebuck advertisement.” Anchorage Daily Times, October 28, 1938, 3.
“Welcome Church’s.” Anchorage Daily Times, September 16, 1979, 14.
“Wonder Bread advertisement.” Anchorage Daily Times, April 24, 1967, 6.
“Woolworth Bid Opening Set August 10.” Anchorage Daily Times, July 22, 1959, 1.