With all the urban problems we have in Anchorage, the September closing of the downtown Nordstrom — an emporium for Alaskans with superfluous money — took center stage when it was announced last week. Over the years, Nordstrom became more of a psychological phenomenon than an actual place to shop. Maybe that is why Nordstrom’s head-shed decided to close the store. Immediately, I began to think of my past decades in Anchorage. Silly to put all this emotion onto a Capitalist institution, I thought… maybe not?
Reminiscing: Nordstrom is kinda like acquiring a cabin. You may never use it much, but it makes you feel you have taken root in the 49th state. Husband Dave and I built a cabin in the mid-seventies on Beaver Lake. We read ‘Sunset Magazine’, back when the rag was all homemade projects (woodworking, gardening, baking). We devoured how-to books on everything from joinery to roof rafters. After pre-cutting lumber at our Hillside bungalow, we hauled the pieces in our yellow Travelall. We made our two elementary school-age children read aloud on what they thought were all-too-long 90-minute back and forth car rides, taken over a bunch of seventies summer vacations. The cabin morphed into a 24x36 box, on Sonotubes, with a covered porch and rough-cut cedar siding. Over the first winter our cottage shifted because we hadn’t used enough diagonals in the roof trusses. With the help of the tool called a ‘Come Along’, and some friends, we pulled the cabin into vertical. Designing/building was fun but going there required arduous Friday car-packing sessions, followed by Monday uber-laundry washing. Hauling drinking water and using a ‘Porta-Potty’ grew old. Excess partying in oversized speed boats made canoeing dangerous on the lake. And pick-ups that would stop abruptly, on a very dusty road, to shoot road signs, grew irritating. So after twenty years we sold our cabin (Miller’s Reach Fire, 1996, destroyed it) and found other ways to acquire rooting in Alaska.
It is important to feel you belong, which brings me back to Nordstrom. Back in the seventies the store was fondly named, ‘Bloomies of the North’ (short for Bloomingdales). It reassured some of us who had come from American cities down-below we hadn’t lost our make-believe sophistication, moving to Alaska. Christmas was especially hard on those who were used to Main Street USA, with urban department store window pageantry.
Nordstrom delivered a ‘Norman Rockwell’ holiday feel especially on December 24. Excitedly, as we hardly got any time to ourselves,Dave and I would leave the kids at home (bribing them with fast food and expectations of ‘dancing sugarplums’) and spend a rare shopping day together. Our first stop was Nordstrom where we would see everyone we knew riding the escalators. In the seventies Nordstrom had something for everyone and didn’t care whether you were a Providence Hospital surgeon or a welder on the Slope, as long as you had money. The fine jewelry counter looked out at the heavy insulated snow clothes. My now worn blankets came from their linen department adjacent to the fur boutique.
Nordstrom had acquired the store from Northern Commercial, 1975. They dropped tires, and red wagons, but we’ve kept their metal tricycle, a souvenir of bygone days. Nordstrom buyers were local and often wives whose husbands were on the Slope or women supplementing incomes because their freshly out of grad school husband-professionals weren’t getting paid enough. I recall an Italian sales woman with a long black braid who ran around Nordstrom frantically, making sure packages got properly wrapped at the rear of the third floor, which she would then personally hand out—everyone knew her.
Long before Anchorage had a variety of organic eateries, Nordstrom featured a unique café to lunch, a break while shopping. They had a ‘Blue Plate Special’—soup, salad, half sandwich. Even though my toddlers loved hotdogs at JCPenney, Nordstrom had better ambiance --their clam chowder was very clammy.
Whether you were heading to a wedding, baby shower, or an office retirement, you went shopping at Nordstrom. Their steel gray paper bags were iconic. The Pipeline era saw the emergence of more formal soirées. Nordstrom knew women were wearing a ball gown once and then returning it; I’m sure they built the cost into the initial price. Store policy rose above rudeness, acquiring a reputation of not being a ‘gun-point’ shop that argued over returns.
The eighties saw more women heading into high end jobs. Women judges and bank executives were seen lining up at the Clinique cosmetic counter for the latest lipstick or blush shades. Nordstrom had children’s clothing from infants to Brass Plum teens. The children’s shoe department was a battleground of screaming toddlers and harried moms. Those salespeople deserved ‘medals of honor’ as they patiently brought out towers of ‘Stride Rite’ shoe boxes. The sound of crinkling tissue paper and closing cardboard lids could be heard across the entire top floor. When the 5th Avenue Mall was built and Nordstrom became attached via a skybridge, they set up an afternoon tea/cookie area along with gourmet chocolates to entice those heading for the smaller boutique competition—smart retail.
In spring 1988, my older daughter, Jennifer, was looking forward to her senior West High prom. I designed/sewed the gown from a blue cotton print with lamb chop sleeves, and a removable train — my rite of passage as a mom. Needing accessories, we headed to Nordstrom to buy red high heels and chunky red beads.
But, there were signs of Alaska’s trendy lifestyles slowly evaporating. In 1989, Nordstrom closed their Fairbanks store which caused street demonstrations; some couples divorced with one of the former spouses leaving the state. In the late ‘90s, the summer Pipeline VECO-lawn-parties began to thin. Appearances by Uncle Ted would soon be ending along with red/white accessorized Marx Brothers pig roast barbecues. Cowboy boots, and ten gallon hats went South with North Slope oil slowing. Life in the forty-ninth state would need reworking, as reflected in shopping trends too.
Twenty-first century shopping increasingly was transacted online with improved speed of returns followed by credit card refunds. Business suits, only needed for court appearances, got replaced by ‘Business Casual’ and now ‘Athleisure’ which could be bought cheaper at Costco and Target. With more frequent air travel at reduced prices, clothing and household goods could be ordered/purchased on a Los Angeles business trip or Palm Springs snow birding winter, and arrive back in Anchorage as personal baggage or a speedy freight delivery.
Nordstrom buyers were no longer your neighbors but unknowns, located somewhere outside the state. With local sales people rapidly turning over, the store no longer knew its customers and quickly forgot that in Anchorage, blue collar workers often had more extra cash than those dripping in Gucci-Prada. Repairs made in the Anchorage Nordstrom also got outsourced, but not without hassles. Back story: Dave needed a suit mended. It was supposed to be sent to Nordstrom’s Seattle in-house tailoring, but was mysteriously diverted to a woman in suburban Washington who went on vacation indefinitely. After much complaining we were able to phone a cab which picked up the suit (a relative with a door key had been located) and deliver it to Nordstrom repairs, at their downtown flag-ship.
I stopped shopping at Anchorage Nordstrom about fifteen years ago, except for the occasional baby gift, after I had run into the men’s department wearing a sweat shirt, and was ignored in favor of a guy in a double breasted jacket looking like he was about to board a yacht. Warm-Fuzzies everyone gets when driving by Nordstrom aren’t enough to keep it in business, even if the store had joined in with the November 30 Earthquake fun — breaking bottles of expensive perfume and losing bricks off its façade. It will really be sad to see another empty building, and a sign Anchorage needs to reshape its post-Pipeline psychological security blankets.
Jean Bundy is a writer/painter in Anchorage