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As Anchorage porn shop becomes indie bookstore, Spenard sleaze becomes history

  • Author: Charles Wohlforth
    | Opinion
  • Updated: July 1, 2016
  • Published December 16, 2015

The peep show booths in the last and nastiest sex shop on Spenard Road will soon make way for a trendy independent bookshop with folk singers, craft-brewed beer and multiethnic food.

Sleazy Spenard has mostly become a memory. The gray building near the intersection with McRae Road, which had only one sign outside, "Adults Only," was one of the last holdouts on what used to be a row dedicated to alcohol and prostitution. Its new owner, Vered Mares, wouldn't venture in without latex gloves until she had disinfected the place with bleach.

With business partner Kathy McCue and other mostly female members of the local writing community, Mares plans to open The Writer's Block Bookstore and Cafe next fall as a center for creative people of all kinds. It would be the only independent bookstore in town selling primarily new books, and the women hope to make it an evening hangout with a venue for music and poetry readings.

They were still cleaning last week when they recalled coming in to look at the building when it was still operating as another kind of bookstore. Informed that employees didn't know about a potential sale, they tried to be inconspicuous as a group of five in business suits.

"We walked in together and then we stood still," Mares said. "How do we pretend we're customers?"

"How do we contain the giggles?" McCue said.

"We failed miserably," Mares said.

The building they expect to demolish in the spring was a bookstore without books. Booths had coin-operated video monitors. A sign in the hall declared, "No pimps, hustlers or dope dealers."

These items could be museum pieces from an earlier Anchorage. Mr. Whitekeys, the Spenard entertainer who made a career lampooning the area's seedy reputation, started playing the piano at Chilkoot Charlie's in 1970, and then in 1980 opened the original Fly-By-Night Club on the shore of Lake Spenard (the current location of the upscale Lakefront Hotel).

His slogan was "Going out of business in the same location for over 30 years," because the club's many identities went back to the Idle Hour, first opened in 1938, and known in Anchorage's early years as the place to go not to be seen. The amazingly limber Miss Wiggles danced there, as well as the city's first drag performer, as old-timers recalled in the Growing Up Anchorage blog.

The area hit its wildest in the 1970s, when the construction of the trans-Alaska pipeline blew up the economy with easy money and the average age of Anchorage residents was 23. Crime went up more than 50 percent in one year -- 1974.

"Spenard Road in the '70s was just a parade of massage parlors and bars," Whitekeys said. "It was the era that gave Spenard its name, its reputation. And those held on for a while."

Anchorage Police Department Capt. Bill Miller has enforced vice laws for much of his 30-year career. He recalls Spenard Road in the 1980s as a wild West of massage parlors that barely bothered to hide their real business of prostitution. A few had lighted signs with movable letters out front that advertised with amusing sexual puns, changed regularly to bring in customers.

Anchorage essentially tolerated prostitution going back to the city's earliest days, when the red light district was made up of tents. Miller said APD did bust massage parlors, but the cases were difficult to make and the penalties minimal. The demise of the brothels came not because of policing, but competition from the Internet and the gentrification of Spenard Road.

The Internet makes prostitution easier for both sides of the transaction and harder for police to stop, and creates less need for peep booths like those in Adults Only, where Miller said prostitutes would meet clients.

"It was part of that seedy culture, where it was definitely contributing, and now it's gone," he said.

The prostitution of the Gold Rush era has become historic kitsch for tourists. In Ketchikan, a former madam grew old enough that, upon her death, her house on Creek Street soon became a slightly titillating prostitution museum.

But from closer up, sex work looks depressing and exploitive.

The small booths at Adults Only were stark and cheap, with vinyl floors worn out by decades of traffic. A solid wood fence surrounded the building, presumably so customers could enter without being seen. Just beyond were homes where Mares said families with children live.

What's coming here next is immeasurably better. Mares will open the building for use by artists through the winter and hopes to tear it down in the spring. A GoFundMe campaign raised $21,000 to support the new business, but she has money she saved from an inheritance and from frugal living, and McCue has a good income as an emergency room doctor.

Pending a construction loan, the new building will go up over the summer, with room for books, a stage and the cafe with coffee, beer and wine. Mares knows running The Writer's Block won't be easy and many small businesses fail. She hopes it will become a gathering place and an outlet for local talent.

Mares lives in Spenard and is glad it is becoming a better neighborhood for families.

"After I saw what this place was, I just wanted to get rid of it," she said. "A community needs to have healthy spaces."

Charles Wohlforth's column appears three times weekly. A lifelong Alaskan, he is the author of more than 10 books and hosts radio shows on Alaska Public Media. Email him at cwohlforth@alaksadispatch.com or find him on Facebook.

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