Heidi Zemach for SCN
The owners of Brown & Hawkins, Iris and Hugh Darling, are liquidating their inventory and planning to close down the historic family business that they’ve run in the heart of downtown for the last 23 years.
“This is it for us,” said Hugh Darling, who’s ready to retire and travel after searching for someone to buy the building on the couple’s terms for the past two-and-a-half years. Unfortunately, they have failed to find a willing buyer.
They will close down the 9,000 square-foot, three-store business at the end of the summer, but still hope to find people willing to lease two of the three buildings, the gift shop and clothing shop buildings. The Darlings plan to return during the summer tourist season to continue to run their homemade candy and gelato store, “Sweet Darlings,” at least for a while.
The Darlings acquired the family business in 1990, while in Seward temporarily visiting and helping to care for Hugh’s mother Virginia (Hawkins) Darling, who was ill. The business had been open in Seward since 1900 in some form or another. Hugh’s grandmother Emma Jean Hay, a young widow, moved to Seward from Iowa with her infant son in 1907, and opened Emma Jean’s Palace of Sweets. She later married the banker and merchant T.W. Hawkins, and quit the shop to devote her time to being a housewife and mother.
The Brown and Hawkins Store, which actually opened in 1903 in anticipation of the coming railroad terminus, is the oldest continually-operated business in Seward as well as the oldest store in Alaska under the same ownership. T. W. Hawkins’ son James Hawkins took it over from his father and then passed it to his daughter Virginia Darling (Hawkins.) Virginia’s son Hugh Darling and his wife Iris are the current operators.
She and Hugh hadn’t meant to stay in Seward, said Iris. “I’m a warm weather girl, born and raised in the South,” she said. The dark winters especially affect her mentally, and she’s slipped and fallen on the ice at least 15 times. But they still had all of Hugh’s grandmother’s candy recipes, and he wanted to carry on with the Sweet Darlings candy store tradition, at least for a while. They soon grew to love the place, the community and people here—if not the weather.
All six of the couple’s grandchildren have worked in the business at various times, and their son Don has helped out making the Gelato for the past three years.
Many loyal customers have filled the store since the liquidation sales signs went up recently. They have expressed disappointment about the closure. “They’re sad, very sad because they’re losing the store,” said Iris Darling. “People say, ‘We’re losing an icon, it’s an institution,” Iris said. “But I say ‘the inmates are leaving the institution.’”
The building’s on the National Register of Historic Places, and is at least as old as the town of Seward is, and like Seward, is older than Anchorage. In fact it’s responsible for giving “Anchorage” its name, said Hugh, showing us the story on an old store calendar. In 1912 Charles E Brown and T.W. Hawkins chartered the SS Bertha. It was loaded with general merchandise, a gold scale and a big iron safe. The inventory was to serve the needs of the trappers and miners. The SS Bertha was sent up the Cook Inlet into the mouth of Ship Creek. To protect the ship from the strong inlet tides it was firmly anchored on the mud flats, thus the coined name “Anchorage.”
The clothing store still has the 100 year old Bucky the Moose head, mounted above the old bank teller cage, and also houses the old bookkeeping machine, and of course the original Mosler safe and vault from when its owners were in the banking business. The gift store still uses some of the original display cases. There’s also a sliding wooden ladder used to fetch things from shelves that are high up, and a weight-pull freight elevator. Most of the things of historic interest they plan to donate to the Seward Museum.
Gelato has been the store’s number one biggest seller, with handmade chocolates, saltwater taffy and fudge following behind, in that order, Hugh said. Brown & Hawkins still makes their own marshmallows and caramel used in its gelato and candy from scratch, which is rare for a small town candy store, he said. The Darlings have made it a point of pride to stay open year-round for local residents and they don’t add freight costs to the cost of the clothing items sold. Thus, customers can buy goods for the same price as they would get them in places like Anchorage or Seattle. They also try to carry useful Alaska items such as Carhartts, Extra Tuff boots, and ice-grippers.
They came close to finding a willing buyer right at the beginning, but, despite a few more interested buyers, they have not yet found that person.
“I hope it will open the door for someone (else) to come in and run it,” said Iris Darling. “We’ve got a good store, good lines and fair prices. That’s what people will really miss: the clothes lines.”
The store employs 20 people in the summertime, and six to eight people in the winter. “We support Shoreside Petroleum with these old buildings,” said Iris, only half joking, referring to the high cost of fuel heat, especially for so much space.
The couple will be spending some of their time initially in Florida, where they own some property, but plan to travel a lot and see where their journey takes them.