Part-time cab driver and Fairbanks writer Richard W. Robinson visited Juneau, Ketchikan and Sitka for about a week in the spring of 2004. His mission: to visit as many bars as possible.
Robinson spent the last three years working on "Last Call: Interviews with Alaskan Bartenders," a 327-page oral history of interviews with more than 120 bartenders from Anchorage to Yakutat. There are 137 pages on Fairbanks, his hometown off and on since 1950, but also chapters on Juneau, Sitka, Ketchikan, Haines, Pelican, Tenakee Springs and Yakutat.
Fairbanks bartender Laura Duffy proposed the idea one night in 2002, when Robinson was hanging out at the Big I, the decades-old institution across the parking lost from the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.
"She said, 'You know, somebody ought to do a book on bartenders," Robinson said. "I said, 'Well, you and I can do that.' And she agreed, but then she got so wrapped up in other projects, she really couldn't do much legwork. I carried it from there, and it just kept growing and expanding. I decided to drive down to Anchorage to interview a bartender, and after I interviewed a bunch, it just kind of mushroomed."
Robinson's had one book signing at the Big I in Fairbanks, and four more are planned in Anchorage. The book is not yet in stores, but it's available at www.buybooksontheweb.com or 1-877-BUY-BOOK.
Most bartenders were receptive. About 15 percent of the bars he approached did not want to be included, he said.
"There were a lot of people that didn't want to tell their stories," Robinson said. "They just didn't want to say anything, because some of the people they would tell stories about were still alive. On the other hand, some people didn't hold back at all. I withheld a lot of last names."
The 24-page Juneau chapter includes interviews with Jerry Niemi (The Sandbar), Keith Crocker (The Alaskan), Charles Smith (The Alaskan), Butch Laughlin, Sandy Krook (The Triangle Club), LeAnne Thomas (The Triangle), Carol Peterson (Red Dog), Tooey (Imperial/Arctic) and Kathy Wilson (The Driftwood Lodge).
"He came in and had a drink," said Triangle bartender Sandi Krook. "He had his tape recorder and his camera, and he yakked with us. I said, 'I want your job, going around to Alaska and all the bars.' That works for me."
Robinson made a separate 700-mile drive to Skagway near the end of the writing process to interview at Mo's Frontier Bar, the Elks Lodge and the Red Onion Saloon.
Of course, Rose Miller, owner of Rose's Bar in Pelican, is in the book. Robinson didn't have a chance to visit Pelican but spoke to Miller over the phone.
Robinson was born in Portland in 1938 and moved to Fairbanks when he was 12. He's lived in the state, off and on, since 1950. He's retired with disability pay from the Fort Wainwright power plant and drives a taxi part-time.
Robinson released his first book, the novel "Light All Night," in 1998. The story was based on the saga of the Exxon Valdez, but included a fictional twist: The leader of a north African country caused the grounding in retaliation for American bombing raids in Libya.
In 2000, Robinson released "Fairbanks Cabbies," a 152-page oral history.
"I've been driving a cab, and there's so many wild experiences," Robinson said. "A lot of these other guys would relate their experiences back to me, so I decided to interview them."
"Last Call" doesn't include every village in Alaska. Some places, such as Barrow and Kotzebue, simply don't have bars, Robinson said.
He did fly to Nome on Sept. 10, 2003, and interviewed Patrice Shook at the Breakers Bar, Stan Sovasinksi at the Bering Sea Club and Jim West at the Board of Trade Building. West's bar includes a Bingo hall and an ivory trade center.
"If you want to see this joint go, you ought to see it along about dividend time, when they've all got money," West says on page 259.
"(Nome) is today like Fairbanks was in the early 1960s," Robinson wrote of the lawless scene.
The nine-page chapter on Dutch Harbor includes a tribute to the Elbow Room and an interview with longtime bartender Linda Bennett, now at Club Paris in Anchorage.
"People from all over the world come to Dutch Harbor," she says on page 53. "There are a lot of Norwegian fishermen and a lot of Russians there. I wouldn't recommend going there unless you have a lot of money and you have a reason to be there, because it's an island with nothing on it but rocks."
The section on Anchorage includes interviews with Darwin Biwer, owner of Darwin's Theory, and Bill Seltenrich, proprietor of the Pioneer Bar. Both were business partners of the late Dick Delak, owner of The Bird House, one of the most legendary bars in Alaska history. The highway tavern was inside a severely sloping century-old cabin in Bird Creek, south of Anchorage. The walls were covered with so many panties and bras that you couldn't see the wood.
"It was the place you took everybody when anybody came to town," Seltenrich says on page 15. "Any visitor, you had to go down to the Birdhouse Bar."
Delak died in a plane crash in 1993. The bar burned in 1996. There's a replica inside Chilkoot Charlie's in Anchorage.
One of Robinson's final interviews was in Chicken, the tiny border town of 100, 66 miles from Tok on the Taylor Highway. The infamous Chicken Saloon, where they apparently blow toilet paper and underwear out of a small cannon, has no running water or electricity. There was no way to call ahead.
"The Chicken Saloon is just like the Red Dog used to be in Juneau," Robinson said. "I went up there after the big fires, and there was still smoke. I just took a gamble and it paid off."
The cover of the book, a flock of human-dressed ravens lurking outside the long-defunct Savoy and Cottage bars on Second Avenue in Fairbanks, is a painting by artist Sandy Jamieson.
The back of the book includes an invaluable appendix of the location of most of the bars in Southcentral Alaska during the last 60 years. Joe Reilly, owner of the Cheechako in Anchorage, compiled the list.
"It was just something that he had been keeping for years and years, and he wanted to share it, to see that it got in print," Robinson said.
Korry Keeker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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