A history of Anchorage chains, franchises and national retailers, Part 2

In this edition, we take a look at when many of the major retailers and big box stores entered the market.

Part of a continuing weekly series on Alaska history by Anchorage historian David Reamer. Have a question about Anchorage or Alaska history or an idea for a future article? Go to the form at the bottom of this story.

Anchorage residents, like all Americans truly, have a complicated relationship with national chains. People give their money and time to these stores and restaurants for years, even decades. The memories accumulate into a reassuring presence. Given enough time, people can become nostalgic for almost anything.

The following is the second of a two-part history on when some of the more major fast food, casual dining, big box stores, and other national chains arrived in Anchorage.

In the spring of 1970, a true harbinger of the future arrived in Anchorage, albeit in the form of a largely forgotten retailer. After nearly two years of planning, construction, and delays, the Seattle-based Valu-Mart chain opened its first Alaska location in Anchorage, at Northern Lights Boulevard and Seward Highway. In a different time, it launched across the highway from Sears and before the construction of Benson Boulevard.

[A history of Anchorage restaurant chains, franchises and national retailers, Part 1]

As its parent company described the chain, Valu-Mart was the “ultimate in modern retailing,” where customers could browse extensive selections of groceries, automotive supplies, toys, music, clothing, appliances, jewelry and sporting goods in a single location instead of making several stops at more specialized stores. Smaller shops offered more curated inventory and personalized assistance. But the all-in-one experience proved seductive in Anchorage as elsewhere. Residents voted with their pocketbooks, fostering the retail evolution toward larger stores, more Woolworth’s than Leonard’s Variety Store, more Walgreens than Hewitt’s Drug Store, more Walmart than McKay’s Hardware. Or, to put it in terms of restaurants, more Olive Garden than Garden of Eatin’.

While few residents will remember Valu-Mart, they will be far more familiar with its successor. In 1975, the Portland-based Fred Meyer bought eight stores from the Valu-Mart parent company, including the Anchorage location. That October, the changeover became official, and the name was changed, thus establishing the first Fred Meyer in Alaska.

On Oct. 25, 1984, Costco opened its first Anchorage store, on Dimond Boulevard. An annual membership then cost $25, about $75 in 2024 after accounting for inflation. In 1991, the wholesaler 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 basic warehouse surrounded by an unadorned parking lot. “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 proposed constructing a new road to 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. Clementson took the distinction in stride, saying, “I go out of my way to drive down the street.”

The warehouse wholesaler soon had competition. Just over three weeks after their first opening, a Price Savers Membership Warehouse opened near the Northway Mall. It was renamed the PACE Membership Warehouse in 1991 after Kmart purchased the discount chain. The Anchorage locations were converted into Sam’s Club in 1994 after Kmart sold that part of their business to Walmart. Of course, the two Sam’s Clubs in Anchorage abruptly closed in 2018.

As the years since then accumulate, it becomes harder and harder to understand the frenzy that accompanied the opening of Kmart here, a time before Walmart and Target made their way north. The first Anchorage Kmart, on Old Seward near Dimond Boulevard, opened its doors on Sept. 23, 1993. The parking lot filled and overflowed. Many locals parked on the other side of Old Seward and ran across the highway. A crowd hovered at the entrance as the store quickly reached capacity. The checkout lines snaked around the store, and each departing customer was instantly replaced from the waiting throng. NBA Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar signed autographs, an extremely rare celebrity event for Anchorage.

The traffic continued to slow, snarling and seizing in every direction. City workers trying to reach the scene stalled in unaccustomed gridlock. Soon cars were backed up along the offramp and onto the Seward Highway. In response to the congestion, Kmart partially subsidized an expansion of Old Seward, with further contributions from Walmart.

One Kmart customer explained the reason for the excitement in a letter to the Daily News. She wrote, “As a consumer and the mother of six, I would like to welcome Kmart, Walmart, PayLess Drugs, and Toys ‘R’ Us to Alaska . . . I know that I am not the only Alaskan weary of being charged 20 to 50 percent more than Lower 48 prices under the guise of ‘shipping costs.’ The lack of competition that has allowed this to continue is about to end. And the winners are us!” The enchantment may or may not have continued, just as her perception of Alaska businesses may not have been completely based in facts. As a chain, Kmart famously floundered. Every Alaska location closed in 2003.

With Kmart accounted for, when did the first Walmart open in Alaska? Well, it’s a bit of a trick question and one I’ve gotten wrong myself. The company itself advertised several different grand opening dates, so even locals of the time were confused. Three Walmarts, collectively the first ones in Alaska, opened on the same day. On March 29, 1994, locations in Midtown Anchorage, South Anchorage and Wasilla unlocked their doors to the public for the first time. None of the Alaska Walmarts initially carried a full selection of groceries.

More so than with the arrival of Valu-Mart, Fred Meyer, Costco, or Kmart, smaller local retailers braced themselves for the negative economic fallout from Walmart’s arrival. Bob Woodworth, Alaska manager for Longs Drugs, told the Daily News in 1993, “You know what I’ve told my people? Treat every customer like it’s the last one you’ll ever see. We’ll go out and open people’s car doors for them if that’s what it takes.” Kent Harrington, Alaska manager for PayLess, said, “We are not a discounter. We are a drug store. We try to co-exist with Wal-Mart.”

Neither store long survived the new retail reality. The Longs Drugs chain, “where everybody saves,” opened its first Alaska store in 1977, in Midtown Anchorage. The chain, since bought by CVS, closed its last Anchorage store in 1995. The first Pay’n Save opened in 1967, in the Northern Lights Shopping Center. PayLess purchased the chain in 1992. Rite Aid bought over a thousand PayLess stores — including the 10 Alaska locations — in 1996, then closed all those Alaska stores in 1998. They still had PayLess signage when they locked their doors for the last time.

As for books, B. Dalton was the first chain to arrive with a downtown store in early 1980. Waldenbooks followed with a Northway Mall location in June 1980. In January 2007, the near-death chain closed both Waldenbooks in Anchorage. Borders opened its first Alaska location in 1994 on Dimond Boulevard between the old and new Seward highways. This store shut in 2010, and the rest of the chain collapsed in 2011. As with many former retail locations, the building is still there and still looks like a Borders store to those who shopped there. It is now the Alaska Neurology Center. Barnes & Noble took over the former Longs Drugs location and, after a lengthy renovation, opened in 1996. Amid the competition, Anchorage institutions like Cyrano’s bookstore and the Book Cache faded away.

As initially operated, the Midtown Barnes & Noble cafe offered Starbucks coffee and locally sourced baked goods. Depending on how pedantically the milestone is defined, that may or may not be the first Starbucks in town. The first standalone Starbucks in Anchorage opened within the International Airport on Jan. 22, 1997.

Blockbuster Video opened its first Anchorage store in 1989. Within a year, they had opened two more. At their peak, there were five locations in Anchorage and 15 total across Alaska. The last ones closed in 2018. Other notable entertainment chains to reach Anchorage include Kay Bee Toys (also known as KB Toys) in 1987, Toys ‘R’ Us in 1993 (closed in 2018), Babbage’s (which became GameStop) in 1994, Cinemark Theatres in 1998, Best Buy in 2002, and Dave & Buster’s in 2018.

For as long as this two-part series is, it cannot list every past and present national chain that planted a flag in Anchorage. But in closing, here are some more retailers that did open local locations: Nordstrom in 1975 (closed in 2019), REI in 1979, Burlington Coat Factory in 1990, Home Depot in 1998, Lowe’s Home Improvement in 2000 (after buying Eagle Hardware & Garden), Petco in 2004, Bed Bath & Beyond in 2007 (last one here closed in 2023), Target in 2008, Walgreens in 2009, Kohl’s in 2009, PetSmart in 2010, Sephora in 2013, Cabela’s in 2014, Bass Pro Shop in 2014, H&M in 2015, and Ulta in 2015.

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Key sources:

Berkowitz, Andrew. “Shoppers Worship at the Blue Lights.” Anchorage Daily News, September 24, 1993, A-1, A-10.

“Discount Store is Sold to Fred Meyer.” Anchorage Daily Times, August 8, 1975, 3.

Doogan, Mike. “Alaskans Exhibit Retail Madness at Opening of Anchorage Kmart Store.” Anchorage Daily News, September 24, 1993, B-1.

Jones, Jennifer. Letter to editor. “Price Gouging is at an End.” Anchorage Daily News, September 26, 1993, G3.

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.

Murray, Tim. “Newest Retail Player in Town Gets Opening Tip-off from Kareem.” Anchorage Daily News, September 24, 1993, D-1, D-4.

Pytte, Alyson. “Road Clears Way for Costco Expansion Plan.” Anchorage Daily News, May 24, 1991, B4.

Russell, Emily. “Blockbuster to Close Last Two Stores in Alaska.” Alaska Public Media, July 12, 2018.

Scagliotti, Lisa. “Anchorage Outfits Brace for the Big Boy.” Anchorage Daily News, January 31, 1993, C-1, C-3.

Scagliotti, Lisa. “Rite Aid to Close its Alaska Stores.” Anchorage Daily News, April 25, 1998, A-1, A-11.

“Supermart Among Center’s Features.” Anchorage Daily Times, October 14, 1968, 27.

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David Reamer | Histories of Alaska

David Reamer is a historian who writes about Anchorage. His peer-reviewed articles include topics as diverse as baseball, housing discrimination, Alaska Jewish history and the English gin craze. He’s a UAA graduate and nerd for research who loves helping people with history questions. He also posts daily Alaska history on Twitter @ANC_Historian.