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At 100, Urbach's clothing store in Seward has lived through it all

SEWARD -- If she isn't fishing or traveling, 88-year-old Dorothy Urbach arrives every morning at her family's historic clothing store in downtown Seward and, after unlocking the front door, steps onto the same wooden floor where customers first stood 100 summers ago.

Inside Urbach's, goods from times gone by are perched on shelves for display only: a feather duster, black boots made of antelope leather, century-old snowshoes, a wooden hat stretcher, typewriters, an adding machine and a milk can from the Jesse Lee Home, where a seventh-grader named Benny Benson was living as an orphan when he won the contest to design Alaska's flag.

It was July 1915 when Dorothy's father-in-law, Leon Urbach, opened the one-room shop on Fourth Avenue. His target customers: Alaska's working men.

Urbach (pronounced "Ur-BACK") meant to capitalize on a federal government plan to build a rail line from Fairbanks to Seward. The railroad workers, gold miners and adventurers streaming through the port town on Resurrection Bay would no doubt need durable clothing and other supplies for the harsh climate and unforgiving wilderness of Alaska.

Much has changed since then, including the neighbors. Of all the businesses that cropped up in Seward's early days, Urbach's is the only one still open and wholly in the hands of the same family that started it a century ago.

Gone are the Seward Commercial Company and Osbo's Electrical Supply. The Brown & Hawkins sign no longer crowns the general store but functions instead as a striking artifact of old Seward and a navigational aid to a gelato shop and Patagonia store.

How Urbach's managed to outlast all its original neighbors, not to mention nearly all the businesses that defined early 20th century Alaska, is a question not even owners Dorothy Urbach and daughter Susie Urbach can readily answer.

"I think it's because we love Seward and Larry's family was the same way," said Dorothy, referring to her husband, who took over the store from his father, Leon, in 1954. "They were very civic-minded."

Community boosterism has proven to be a good business strategy and the Urbachs have mastered the art of involving themselves personally in the stewardship of Seward's economy.

"Leon and Larry between them had a combined 40 years as presidents of the chamber of commerce," said Seward historian Doug Capra, who wrote an extensive history of Urbach's for the Seward Journal. "They embedded themselves in this town."

Dorothy has led the boards of the hospital, the library and the League of Women Voters -- and that's just a partial list. For 30 years she was the publicity chairman of the Seward Silver Salmon Derby.

"My husband and I were probably president of every organization there was in Seward over the years," said Dorothy. "What he wasn't president of, I was."

Surrounded by history

In the back office, Dorothy works at the roll-top desk where Leon once typed letters and jotted figures in heavy account books.

She deposits cash into the same ornate brass register, made in 1908, that has been in the store for no one knows how long. New customers invariably ask whether the enormous antique still works.

"I tell them they'll find out if they buy something," Dorothy said.

Her outfit -- a white jacket, colorful silk scarf and black pants -- reflects the fashionable-but-practical ethos of the store, and her voice has a gentle lilt blended with a hint of toughness that comes, perhaps, with decades of living in Alaska and working in the highly cyclical retail industry.

She was alone in the store when the Good Friday earthquake struck on March 27, 1964.

"I was standing in front of the cash register because all the men were home sick that day," she said. "It sounded like a locomotive coming through the store. We lost light fixtures. Some of the posts holding the ceiling came down. The shoe shelves toppled over. We lost a lot of structure on the front of the store."

Dorothy dropped the money she was holding and crouched under one of the ceiling posts until a friend came in and told her to leave. She climbed over the pile of fallen shoes to the office where she kept the car keys and drove home to her husband and two little girls. The family then moved to higher ground.

"The house was just a mess. Everything was all over the place," Dorothy said. "But my husband was calm."

The earthquake and ensuing tsunami claimed 13 lives in Seward.

With its waterfront in shambles, the city had no choice but to cede its status as Alaska's commercial center to Anchorage, where the port was intact and still functioning. Many businesses simply disappeared.

Dorothy, who calls herself a relentless optimist, insisted she never thought of closing the store or of leaving Seward.

"The earthquake set us back, but it also pushed us ahead 20 years because everything had to be rebuilt," she said.

After Larry's death in 1999, Dorothy took over the store. Her daughter, Susie Urbach, who was working there as a part-time bookkeeper, became a partner soon after.

'Life goes on'

Aside from carrying the store into the next generation, Susie, a mother of two adult children, is continuing the family's civic legacy. She is vice president of the chamber of commerce and serves on the board of the community health center.

Susie ventures to guess that Urbach's has survived by staying attuned to changes in consumer tastes.

"Back when the store opened, the inventory was about 80 percent men's clothing and 20 percent women's," she said. "Today that's switched."

Leon once stocked clothes brushes, English broadcloth shirts, kangaroo leather shoes and even golf equipment (in anticipation of a local course that never was built). Decades later, Dorothy and Susie have arrayed all manner of women's clothing and accessories, whimsical children's outfits, hiking shoes and other outdoor gear, jewelry by Susie's daughter and neck warmers knit by Dorothy herself. Men can still find shirts and outdoor gear, including Carhartt, Alaska's sartorial staple.

Silk scarves are still on offer, as they were in the 1920s, but they're styled for women rather than men.

More change is likely on the way. Susie said that aside from herself, no one in the family is interested in taking over the store.

The prospect of Urbach's without an Urbach, or of no Urbach's at all, doesn't seem to bother Dorothy.

"We enjoy what we're doing now. As far as what happens when I'm gone, well, life goes on," she said.

For now, the Urbachs are enjoying their milestone year. The store is serving as the grand marshal in the Independence Day parade on Saturday and is featured in a small exhibit in the Seward Community Library and Museum.

Hundredth birthdays aside, business, as life, goes on.

"When I open up in the morning, I don't think about the history," Dorothy said. "I'm just glad someone remembered to lock the door the night before."

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