Internet, big boxes put lid on institution

Anchorage store couldn't hack the competition

Posted: Tuesday, February 22, 2005

ANCHORAGE - After more than half a century selling working attire to Alaskans, Brewster's Clothing & Footwear will close at the end of February.

The family owned and operated Anchorage store, founded in 1952 by the late Charles H. Brewster, could no longer compete with national chains, big-box stores and the Internet, said Cindy Conway, vice president.

"It's going to be missed," said Pat Belarde, a customer who has shopped at Brewster's since 1964. "We're losing all of our stores with personality."

On a recent afternoon, as word of Brewster's demise began to spread, customers filtered into the landmark store near the corner of North Bragaw Street and Mountain View Drive. Some stopped by to shop and reminisce. Others came simply to bargain-hunt.

To clear out its inventory by month's end, Brewster's has slashed prices storewide.

The store catered to those who work hard for a living: carpenters, miners, loggers, mechanics, plumbers and the like. Brewster's also appealed to everyday Alaskans who favor practicality over fashion when it comes to clothes.

"I've gotten boots here, Helly Hansen rain gear. I've been coming here for 30 years," said Chuck Canterbury, an Eagle River resident who was slipping a Carhartt vest over his suit and tie.

For Canterbury, one of the best things about Brewster's is that the store carries practically every size of item that manufacturers like Carhartt, Filson and Pendleton make.

"Look at the selection," he said, pointing to a rack of Carhartt overalls that stretches from one end of the store to the other.

For busy workers in the building trades, Brewster's was a godsend because customers could walk in and find the size they needed.

"Most men don't want to shop," Canterbury said.

For many decades, Brewster's thrived. Charles Brewster, then in his late 80s, opened two new stores in South Anchorage in the 1990s, said Conway.

"He was always an entrepreneur," said Conway, who started working in the store in 1984, hemming pants and doing payroll.

But by the time the new Brewster stores opened, national chains were coming to Anchorage, forcing out a string of independent, locally owned businesses. Among the casualties: McKay's Hardware, Gary King Sporting Goods, Stolt's Home Center, Chapter One Books and Labels Shoes.

The Brewster's stores in South Anchorage closed within the last few years, Conway said.

"The market really has changed," she said.

People don't go to smaller stores as much anymore, Conway said. They like the convenience of going to one big place and getting food, clothing, tires, office supplies or whatever else they need. It's faster.

Brewster, who died in January 2003, would understand why his store is closing, Conway thinks.

"He would be sad, but he was a practical man," she said.

The store simply didn't have the gross sales it needed to be profitable, Conway said. Unlike some big national retailers, the Anchorage store continued to offer health insurance benefits, annual leave, $12-an-hour wages on average and Christmas bonuses.

"If you can't give people a little money at Christmas, you might as well get out of business," Conway said.

Brewster's could try to adapt to changing times, bringing in a greater variety of products, including sports and camping gear, to try to compete. But it's not going to happen.

"It's not where I'm headed," said Conway, whose mother also worked at Brewster's, took care of Brewster in his elder years, and was his legal guardian.

Brewster was born in Helena, Ark., in 1916. After six years in the Marine Corps, including a stint fighting the ground war on Iwo Jima, he headed to Alaska, arriving in Anchorage in 1946.

He married his wife, Betty, in 1949, and that year opened a laundry business, the Mountain View Washaroo. The business catered to the nearby Fort Richardson military base. Brewster's Department Store opened shortly afterward in a log cabin in Muldoon. The store moved to Mountain View in 1959.

The Brewsters homesteaded 100 acres off Clarks Road in Bear Valley. There's a street named after them called Brewster's Way.



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