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Business/Economy

Customers march to protest closure of Fairbanks Nordstrom store

  • Author: David Hulen
  • Updated: June 26, 2019
  • Published September 9, 1989

This story was originally published on Sept. 9, 1989

FAIRBANKS — With her red linen Jones of New York blazer, navy skirt, floral silk blouse and cream-colored Italian pumps, Sally DeWitt was the picture of conservative Yuppie taste as she marched along a downtown sidewalk here Friday afternoon.

But with her pearls and earrings, she wore an odd accessory: a picket sign propped on her shoulder. It said: "Nordstrom Don't Abandon Me."

"I've never carried one of these in my life," said DeWitt, director of marketing and planning at Fairbanks Memorial Hospital. "It's a completely new experience."

She wasn’t the only neophyte protester who showed up Friday to express her disappointment with the decision by the upscale Nordstrom department store chain to close its Fairbanks store in January. About 200 people — most of them women and many of them well-dressed — spent an hour or so marching in the street outside the store on a warm afternoon before the rally finally fizzled out.

As protests went, it was . . . polite. No chanting, no raised voices. The signs said things like: "I'll Spend More," "Please Don't Leave, I Keep My Credit Card Full," and "We're Here to Stay, You Should Too." Someone arrived dressed as a charge card. Someone else came as a giftwrapped box. A woman in a clown costume carried a sign that said, "Pinky Loves Nordstrom."

The only excitement came when the police came to arrest an alleged shoplifter inside.

The event, billed as a rally rather than a demonstration, was organized by the local chamber of commerce. It was hard to tell how much was media event — Outside newspapers and TV have been calling here for two days — and how much a real indication of how people here feel about the store closing. But the mood of many of the marchers was downbeat and many talked, only partly in jest, about how depressed they were about the closing.

“Let’s face it, when it’s 30 or 40-below, there’s not that much to do,” said Gail Ballou. “This little store helps a lot. In Washington, D.C., it doesn’t make any difference. They close this store, you go to Macy’s or wherever. Here, this is it.”

Ballou, a Harvard-educated lawyer from Oregon, moved here eight years ago. The first time she drove into town, she said, she saw “BaskinRobbins and a Nordstrom and I knew everything was going to work out OK.”

With a population of about 75,000, the FairbanksNorth Star Borough is the largest population center for 400 miles. After January, the sole Nordstrom in Alaska will be in Anchorage, an eight-hour drive or a $145 roundtrip weekend flight to the south.

Many Fairbanksans — even those who claim they rarely set foot in the store — are talking about the terrible loss. Some said it was like a city losing its baseball team.

"When you have an upscale retail store, it lends to the identity of your community," said City Manager Brian Phillips, who acknowledged he rarely shops there. "People like to think of the good things they have in their city. You look at the hotels, what kind of restaurants you have, the schools, and your retail businesses. . . .

"Something like this . . . it hurts. It hurts when you're selling the city as a place for people to come and you don't have it."

Nordstrom officials said the store will close because its two small buildings are too decrepit to keep open, and sales here can't justify remodeling or moving into a more modern building.

The Fairbanks store ranks last in sales in the 52store Nordstrom chain, and only the store in Yakima, Wash., is physically smaller, said Paul Hunter, a vice president at the chain's Seattle headquarters.

The Fairbanks Nordstrom may be the only one in the chain with the men’s and women’s departments in separate buildings, and it may be the only one with whitewashed, boarded-up windows. The main building here is one of the oldest in Fairbanks, built in 1905 as the Northern Commercial Co. warehouse, and taken over by Nordstrom in the 1970s during the pipeline boom. The paint outside is peeling and the roof leaks.

Hunter said the decision to close the store was final, and said he was surprised by the protest. Although local chamber and city officials say they're trying to come up with some options for the company including finding a new building Hunter said he was not optimistic.

"The Fairbanks community has been very loyal and we appreciate that." Several years ago, Fairbanks businessmen tried to put together a proposal to move the store, "but the developer was never able to pull it off," he said.

The closing comes as the chain is getting reams of upbeat national press for its expansion into Midwest and East Coast markets. The New York Times recently described the store's reputation for customer service as "almost legendary," and other stores are copying the store's approach.

The Fairbanks store is only the second Nordstrom closure since the first store opened in 1901; the other was in Kenai several years ago.

It hasn't gone unnoticed in the Outside press. For the past two days, the telephone at the chamber of commerce has been ringing with calls from television, radio and newspaper reporters in Seattle, Los Angeles and other West Coast cities.

Organizers were disappointed that more people didn't show up for the protest Friday, which featured food, music and a 5kilometer "Nordys Don't Run Run." But several people couldn't remember the last time this many people had shown up outside in Fairbanks to protest anything.

Marvilla Davis, a voice teacher wearing a green, flowerprint dress, thought for a moment when asked why she was so upset about a store.

"I know it seems superficial," she said. "But for some of us, the arts in the community and this store are what keeps Fairbanks from being a big truck stop. It helps the quality of life."

Sharon Dowlearn, who lives 90 miles away in Delta Junction, drove in for the protest just as she sometimes drives in to the store a couple of times a week, she said.

"This is how we take out our stress living up here," said Dowlearn, a commissary manager at the Fort Greely Army base. "I think we ought to send Nordstroms our psychiatrists' bills when we don't have a place to go."

Down the street, in the JC Penney store, manager Gerry Bowden said he was disappointed, too. Having Nordstrom nearby helps his business, and when it closes it will be one less reason for people to come downtown.

"I support a full choice and I think we're all going to lose," he said.

But not everyone in Fairbanks is so gloomy. Out on the sidewalk, Tom Tribble said he was sorry to hear the store was closing, but couldn't say he was going to miss it. He wore dirty gray coveralls unzipped to the waist, sneakers and a blue ballcap over shoulderlength blond hair; his eyes were bloodshot.

"Well, if I had an old lady right now, I might care if it was there," he offered. Had he been in the store recently?

“Oh yeah, I rang the bell for the Salvation Army in there last summer,” he said. “I mean last Christmas.”

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