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Fairbanks Shoppers Picket Nordstrom Store : Customers Protest Company’s Plans to Close Outlet in Alaskan Heartland

Special to The Times

Gail Ballou was fresh out of Harvard Law School and terrified when she arrived here eight years ago to go to work as a lawyer. She was excited at the prospect of living at the edge of the Alaska wilderness, but nervous at the thought of ending up in a frozen frontier outpost.

“I remember that first night as we were driving into town,” she said. “I saw a Baskin-Robbins and a Nordstrom and I knew everything was going to work out OK.”.

So it was no surprise that Ballou--and others here--were stricken with panic attacks two weeks ago when executives of the Seattle-based Nordstrom department store chain announced that they were closing their Fairbanks store in January. Nordstrom says the 85-year-old downtown building is structurally too decrepit to keep open, and that the store is not large enough to justify rebuilding or moving.

In a larger city, such an announcement might be greeted with disappointment from some customers. But in Fairbanks, with a population of about 25,000 and virtually no other sizable upscale retailer, it has become the talk of the town. With winter only a few weeks away and the nearest larger city, Anchorage, 350 miles south, Nordstrom loyalists are depressed and cranky. Even people who never set foot in the place say they’ll be sorry to see it go.

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On Friday, they marched. About 200 residents--most of them women and some of them tastefully dressed in business suits, silk blouses and pumps--showed up outside the store for an after-work street protest to try to persuade the company to change its mind.

As street marches go, it was decidedly polite. No one chanted. No one even raised a voice. The most exciting moment occurred when police arrived to arrest someone for shoplifting inside the store.

The protesters carried signs with slogans such as, “I’ll Spend More,” “Please Don’t Leave, I Keep My Charge Card Full” and “Give Me Nordstrom or Give Me Death.” A woman arrived dressed as a charge card. Another came as a gift-wrapped box. The city even sponsored a 5-kilometer “Nordies Don’t Run Run” and gave out balloons and lapel pins pleading with the company to stay.

No one could remember so many people gathering in Fairbanks recently to protest anything.

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“Let’s face it,” said Ballou, the lawyer, as she marched down a sidewalk, “when it’s 30-or 40-below outside, there’s not that much to do here. This little store helps a lot.”

Another marcher, music teacher Marvilla Davis, said she couldn’t remember ever protesting anything.

“I know it seems superficial,” she said. “But for some of us, the arts in the community and this store are what keep Fairbanks from being a big truck stop.”

Sharon Dowlearn drove in for the march from her home in Delta Junction 90 miles away--just as she often drives to Fairbanks to shop at the store, she said.

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“This is how we take out our stress living up here,” said Dowlearn, who manages the commissary at a nearby Army base. “I think we ought to send Nordstrom our psychiatrists’ bills when we don’t have a place to go anymore.”

Plans to close the store here come at a time when Nordstrom is receiving national attention for its expansion into Midwest and East Coast markets. The closure is the first in the company’s 88-year history, according to Paul Hunter, a vice president.

The Fairbanks store has the smallest sales volume in the 52-store chain, Hunter said. The store, which opened in the mid-'70s during the Alaska pipeline boom, may also be the only Nordstrom in the country with peeling paint and whitewashed, boarded-up windows outside.

Hunter said the store has made a profit, but said the company couldn’t justify remodeling or building a new outlet. Despite the protest, he said the decision to close on Jan. 27 is final.

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Meanwhile, city and local business officials, who organized the protest, are trying to put together a proposal that might persuade Nordstrom to stay, including locating a newer building.

“Granted, most people in Fairbanks probably don’t spend a lot of time shopping at Nordstrom,” said City Manager Brian Phillips, who admitted that he’d only been in the store two or three times. “But the class of your retail establishments reflect on what kind of city people think you are.”

Phillips and other civic leaders want to talk with Nordstrom. But some shoppers aren’t interested in talking.

“I was upset,” said Cherie Kelly, a resident for more than 20 years who said she routinely pays a $120-a-month Nordstrom charge bill. “It’s where you went to get a Christmas present. It was a special place here.

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“Then I got to thinking, I heard their ad on the radio for the boot sale. It’s a big sale. I thought, ‘I’ll be darned if I’m going to shop there. Poo on you. We don’t need you.’ ”

Like others, Kelly said she would probably end up ordering from catalogues more, or going to Anchorage, or shopping when she’s on vacation on the West Coast.

But like most situations, some people think that even the Nordstrom closing may have a silver lining.

“I was talking to somebody about it,” said Valerie Therrien, another lawyer who was at the march. “And they said, ‘I wonder if this means they’re going to have a sale?’ ”

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David Hulen, a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News, wrote this story for The Times.


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