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Voices Through Time: Remembering Percy's Cafe

Juneau’s long-standing eatery did more for its customers than simply feed them

Posted: April 2, 2011 - 6:21pm
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The interior of Percy's Café featured horseshoe-shaped counters, which remained similar throughout the restaurant's renovations through the years.   Courtesy of Ruth Blackwell
Courtesy of Ruth Blackwell
The interior of Percy's Café featured horseshoe-shaped counters, which remained similar throughout the restaurant's renovations through the years.

When rock and roll was in its heyday, Percy’s Café was where it was happening in Juneau.

“You went down to Percy’s and that’s where it all happened, right there on Front Street,” said Mike Blackwell, a graduate of Juneau High School, class of 1955.

At the time, Juneau had a population of about 6,000 and most of those souls were wedged between Mt. Juneau and Mt. Roberts.

“It was like a little triangle,” said Rene Guerin, a 1954 JHS graduate. “There was the Teen Club, the movies and Percy’s. They served typical American food, greasy and wonderful. But the food didn’t seem to matter. It was a place where we all gathered.”

Everyone who was anyone was at Percy’s, said Pierre Sundborg, a 1956 Juneau-Douglas High School graduate. “(Teenagers) would be sitting in a booth, or standing out in front or driving by in an endless circle.”

Percy’s roots

Percy Reynolds opened the café shortly after he arrived in Juneau in the mid 1930s, said his daughter, Ruth Reynolds Blackwell, of the JDHS class of 1964. Harriett Reynolds, Ruth’s mother, married Percy in 1941 and the couple ran the café until 1972 when Percy died.

Percy’s was located where the Viking Lounge is today. Percy’s Liquor Store, to the left of the bar, retains its original name.

The café’s décor underwent many reconfigurations, according to Ruth, but the main features remained similar or the same, including the three horseshoe-shaped counters that would appear on the right after entering. The booths were to the left with sundries and the magazines to the front.

The restaurant had a rhythm of its own, and it wasn’t just teenagers swaying to the latest pop hits. Mornings belonged to adults coming in for breakfast. The big booth in the corner was often occupied by businessmen sipping mid-morning coffee. There was an adult lunch crowd and mostly single adults for dinner. Teenagers came down from 6th St. around 3 p.m. when the high school let out. Pre-teens rushed in after Saturday matinees.

Richard Fleek, of the class of 1964, remembers hanging out by the magazine rack in Percy’s reading Hot Rod magazines and listening to Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis on the jukebox.

“I would keep an eye on who was coming in and going out,” Fleek recalled. “Then I stood around outside giving the high sign to people going by in cars waiting for someone I knew so I could cruise around with them.”

There was a rumor that Elvis was coming to town, remembered Jackie Honeywell Triplette, class of 1961.

“We only had one or two passenger ships a week in the summer, and there was a rumor that Elvis was on one,” said Triplette. “Half the kids in town were down on the dock.”

Unfortunately, no Elvis materialized.

Mike Grummett, class of 1955, who had joined his father’s insurance business in the early ‘60s, remembers being invited to join a number of Juneau businessmen at Percy’s for coffee.

“I was impressed, thinking I was making the big time until I realized they wanted someone to help pay for the coffee,” he said with chuckle.

Raised in a restaurant

A trip to Percy’s was often a reward to kids for good behavior. Zack Gordon, founder of the Teen Club, would bring a gang of kids in after they participated in his quiz show on KINY-FM radio.

“I didn’t think much of the quiz show until I heard that a feast was being laid on at Percy’s after the show,” said Grummett. “I told myself I might not know a damn thing but I would like to get in on the party!”

After the show, as many as 10 kids were stuffed into the biggest booth in Percy’s.

“Zack always ordered two big orders of French fries and two large white bowls of gravy. Oh, god,” said Sundborg, “we though that was heaven.”

However, social control wasn’t left to chance in Percy’s.

“I remember going into Percy’s as a kid and there was Mrs. Reynolds watching over us with her eagle eyes,” said Kathy Orme Hildre, class of 1960.

“You damn sure didn’t get out of there without paying the bill,” said Fleek, who was occasionally in Percy’s to buy cigarettes. “She would give me the worst look I’ve ever had in my life,” he said.

“Yeah, the kids all knew her and she made them stay in line,” said Ruth, laughing.

And Mrs. Reynolds needed eagle eyes with kids like Sundborg busy in a booth preparing to launch his paper-wrapped straw to the ceiling.

“I would cut off one end of the paper and dip the other end in gravy and then blow it straight to the ceiling where it stuck,” said Sundborg.

But only after making sure Mrs. Reynolds wasn’t looking.

“You never wanted to be on the wrong side of her,” said Sundborg.

For his high school initiation, freshman Ron Hildre, class of 1953, walked through Percy’s carrying a dead dog salmon and dressed in nothing but his underpants. Mrs. Reynolds’ reaction went unrecorded.

Kids sitting around drinking root beer floats probably didn’t make Percy much money, said Dick Reynolds, Percy’s nephew.

“I don’t think he discouraged it but keeping them under control required patience,” said Reynolds, class of 1959.

“Our misbehaving was so benign,” said Guerin. “I guess we were repressed but I don’t remember being miserable about it.”

By the late 1960s, Percy’s Café was fading as the go-to social spot in town. There were a number of factors, most importantly the center of Juneau’s population was shifting to the valley. TV, first seen in Juneau in 1956, also had a growing influence.

“There was just four hours of TV with an hour of test patterns that we watched,” said Triplette, joking.

As programming expanded people spent more time at home, which hurt the movie business and Percy’s.

“We were safe at Percy’s. That was the main thing,” said Kathy Hildre. “We spent most of our time with girls. We had our own booths and we all had a certain group of friends that we sat with. Unfortunately, we don’t have places like that anymore for kids to hang out.”

• Mac Metcalfe, of Juneau, is retired from public school teaching and from the Alaska Army National Guard.

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