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Charting another latitude

After 25 years, gift shop owners get ready for retirement

Posted: Tuesday, August 13, 2002

Twenty-five years ago, Keil and Moretta Rieger purchased a small gift shop on Franklin Street. They built it up, changed its name to Latitude 58 and kept it open year-round, holding fast to their original goal of being a store for Juneau residents first.

Now, as sale signs fill the windows and items from merchandise to display cases are spoken for by customers, they're preparing to retire.

"We're thinking mid-September, but the way our merchandise has been selling out, it could be sooner," Moretta Rieger said. "It's been a great ride. It's fun to go out on a high note. Our business is still doing exceptionally well."

"We wanted to be a local gift shop for the local people, and we held that theme up to the bitter end," Keil Rieger said with a laugh.

Locals stopping by the shop Friday said they didn't know what they'd do without the longtime store.

"You can't not have Latitude 58," said Geri McLeod, who said she'd been coming to the shop for 19 years. "It's been here forever. I'm happy for them, though. They've given to Juneau and now they're giving to themselves."

The Riegers bought Latitude 58 - then known as the Seven Arts Gift and Fur - from Floyd Fuette in 1977. They worked through the summer of 1978 under that name, then closed to remodel. In keeping with the nautical theme of their new name - Latitude 58 is Juneau's relative latitude - they designed the shop to look like a ship, Keil said.

The merchandise the store carries has shifted over the years. Originally, the Riegers said, they carried more inexpensive pieces, including T-shirts and novelty items such as "Go Kiss A Moose" foam antlers.

"We couldn't keep those things in stock," Keil recalled with a laugh. "It's too bad they stopped making them. We could have retired on the sale of those."

As they made more contacts with local artists and found themselves acquiring more expensive, high-end art pieces, their wares changed, they said.

"We decided because we were able to get these artists, we wanted to start developing our store around unique lines," Keil said. "The more souvenir shops that opened, the less of that we carried, and that was fine."

During their time in business, the Riegers said they've seen the Juneau shopping scene change dramatically. When Latitude 58 opened, it was one of a handful of gift shops downtown. One or two cruise ships came by per week, Moretta said.

"Downtown had a lot to offer back in those days," she said. Shopping included department stores such as Montgomery Ward and Sears, as well as former Front Street fixture Lyle's Home Furnishings.

"That's the only place they shopped," Moretta added. "That's all there was."

The Riegers played an active role in organizing the local business community. They worked with a board of owners to found the Downtown Business Association - Keil served as president off and on for a total of about 10 years - and watched it grow from seven members to 125.

"We worked extremely well with the city to help develop ... the downtown core," Keil said. "We had a lot of fun. We had Christmas parades back then."

Both have warm memories of the Christmas season, of helping sponsor children's poster contests and serving hot cider to customers. The bonds they've formed over the years will be hard to leave behind, Moretta said.

"We probably have places to go everywhere in the world," she said. "People have invited us. ... We just had so many folks in and it's been so much fun."

Those guests include luminaries - former President Reagan and his wife Nancy among them - and children they've watched grow up. Many local kids have worked in the store, the Riegers said, including their three daughters, Tanya, Traci and Kyla.

Now they have grandchildren as well, and the Riegers are looking forward to spending time with them during their retirement. They'll be in Juneau during the summers, they said, and hope to visit often.

The Riegers will be missed, said Tita Mooney, a local who's been coming to the store since it opened.

"They're so Juneau," she said. "These are the kind of people (who show) why you stayed when you got here."

Genevieve Gagne-Hawes can be reached at geneviev@juneauempire.com.



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