By Jason Aigeldinger for SCN –
Bob Shafer of the Seward Journal wrote an excellent article highlighting Urbach’s 100th anniversary. Although there is some redundant information in the Q&A that follows below, I share with you the interview I did last month with Dorothy Urbach and her daughter Susan. I felt the frank wisdom and humor that shows through in our conversation had to be shared in its original format. I appreciate Dorothy’s perspective on Seward and I respect her commitment to the service of her community.
(J)ason:So let’s start at the beginning. In 1915?
(D)orothy:In 1915, my husband Larry’s parents, Leon and Dorothy Urbach came to Seward and opened up Urbach’s Clothing Store. It was clothing and groceries, I think at the time. The store has been here since 1915.
And then Larry and I came back in 1954 to take over the store when Leon and Stella, (Leon’s second wife, Dorothy passed in 1933,) retired and moved to Santa Barbara.
And have been here ever since.
My daughter Susan and I are the owners of the store now and it’s always been a family business and this is our hundredth anniversary.
J: O.k. and now where did they come from to Seward?
D: I think Leon came from Idaho.
J: Do you know where abouts specifically?
D: No I don’t have that much history
(S)usan: Our family wasn’t great about writing things down and documenting stuff.
D: There is no one else to ask but us. The store burnt down in 1941 and I remember Larry saying that Leon was so pleased with so many people (who) came in to help him move the merchandise out, to save the merchandise from the fire. But the problem was they took it home so if it wasn’t for his good credit, and the salesman giving him good credit to start a new business, we probably wouldn’t be here today.
And we have been a local business and we appreciate all the local business, you know, all the people that shop locally.
Larry and I were married and we lived outside and we thought we didn’t want to come back to Alaska. We lived in Seattle and Portland and after three years Leon had put the store up for sale and there was a buyer in Anchorage and at that time Larry didn’t want come back but after living outside for three years and managing some shoe stores out there he decided he wanted to come back. And the sale fell through and so his father asked him would he consider coming back and at that time Larry said ‘absolutely.’ And it was a really primitive time to come back in ’54. They were just getting over the polio epidemic and of course there were no paved streets or paved sidewalks but the dock at the end of fourth avenue was just being built and it was a prosperous time in Seward. The most exciting thing about coming back was not only the beautiful scenery but the people were so wonderful.
J: Can you speak a little more to that for me?
D: Well all I remember is driving down when he picked us up. My other daughter Robin was a year and a half old and we were driving down the highway and I kept saying ‘why didn’t you tell me how beautiful it was.’ It was one of those gorgeous sunny days in October and he was pointing out different places and says ‘this is mile 112, this is mile 53’ and I said ‘why do they call it that’ he said ‘its because there is nothing else there.’ So coming into town, he showed me a cabin where the old timers would come out and spend their summers there to get away. And driving in town I said ‘get away from what?’ Because then it started to rain and it was muddy and no paved streets. I think a lot it was the wonderful people and the humor that kept us going. But it was an exciting time.
J: And so where did you grow up?
D: I grew up in Hillsboro, Oregon and went to the University of Washington were I met Larry. He came down from Alaska and I came up.
J: What were you studying?
D: Zoology and we got married and lived in Seattle for a year and a half and then we moved to Hillsboro for a year and a half and then came back to Seward which was the best move we ever made.
J: A hundred years in the same space, location of the store.
D: And of course we had the earthquake in ’64 everything fell down except that cash register, because I was right behind it. The men were home sick with the flu in those days it seemed like and I was checking up and we had big light fixtures that came down, the shoe wall came down, (pointing to the cash register) that baby sat right there.
J: So you were right in here when the earthquake hit and now can you talk a little bit about what it was like after the earthquake?
D: Of course we had no electricity or water, sewer or anything as you know.
J: For how long?
D: It was I think five or six days. It was really interesting, the people wanting to leave were right at the airport. They wanted to go. The people who wanted to stay and build up Seward stayed and helped make it what it is today.
S: Especially because the industry was lost along the water front it was pretty dismal.
D: Yeah, we lost 100% of our industry because our whole waterfront, railroad and Standard Oil went up in flames and you know after that they moved to Anchorage so we lost there. So it was lean times then but Anchorage business people were great. They couldn’t drive down, they would fly down to help what ever way they could.
J: And in which ways would they help?
D: Well, like my other daughter was wearing braces and she couldn’t get up there so at the Alaska Shop, they would meet there and the dentist would fly down and check ‘um you know. They were really good. And the men for our salmon derby, we didn’t have money to start it so a lot of the Anchorage business people helped keep the derby going in August after the earthquake you know. Alaskans are that way. It’s not who you are or what you are its what you have in common.
D: So the store, when it started out, was about eighty percent mens clothing and probably 20 percent womens. Now its 80 percent women’s and 20 percent men’s.
J: And what was it like in ’54 when you and Larry took it over?
D: It was work clothes, work clothes and very little frilly stuff. It was all casual clothes.
S: But the interesting thing is there is an ad in the hall there from when my grandfather had the store and they are talking about golf equipment and so there must have been some place to play golf.
D: Well I’ve got a picture of Leon and Larry where he is teeing off on Fourth Avenue… I’ll show you that one too. (laughter)
And you know years ago, maybe about fifteen to twenty years ago, they tried to get a golf course in Herman Leirer’s pasture and that was going to be another thing. So you know things that they plan for in Seward, some of them materialize and some haven’t.
J: Yup. What are some other things off the top of your head that were planned that maybe never came to fruition?
D: Well think of the things like the granary, where they had a grain mill that didn’t materialize. They were going to store all the grain from the Matanuska Valley down here. The library probably has history about that. And it never materialized. There was a lot of money lost in other ventures but then again look how Seward has grown. Population wise we haven’t because the road is too close to Anchorage you know and a lot of people want to live in the big city but a lot of our customers are from the Valley, the Kenai Peninsula because like they say they find things here they don’t find anyplace else. And we try to help as much as we can with special orders and layaways anything a small store tries to do for their customer.
J: And so, um, speaking of that how about tourists, do you sell a lot to tourists and if so what?
S: We do. We sell a lot of things to tourists. We went through a stage where we carried things, you know, with Alaska blazed all over it and you know a lot of people do that and we figured let someone else have that niche, let’s do something different. So we don’t sell so much to the cruise ship people those (people) usually pass through.
J: Seems like that’s a closed loop for money anyway.
S: Well it is, but they are still after the knick-knack stuff that they can find elsewhere. We have a lot of people who come through the store not from here and end up to be great customers. They either call to special order or they make a point to come here when they are up in the area. Its really gratifying to see that. You know we want to grow but we’re not doing the online thing because we like to carry different things and not a lot of the same things so we can keep changing our things out.
D: We have a following. We definitely have a following. We try to find things you won’t find anywhere else.
D: Certain lines of clothes.
D: I don’t want to say. (Laughter)
S: And we don’t want to compete with the chain stores either.
D: And we can’t afford to first of all. And we don’t want too. You don’t want to walk in and see 12 of the same blouses and dresses or skirts or anything else. We try to find things you don’t find anywhere else. And its been very gratifying because we have so many customers, even from Anchorage that have walked into Nordstrom’s and everybody says where did you get that jacket and then they say ‘Urbachs of course in Seward’ and that is what we are looking for. And like what Susan was saying, people will call us all throughout the year from all over the country so we ship from the east coast to the west coast. The tourists, we get the rubber traffic, we don’t get the cruise ship people, we get the people that travel on their own and then drive down to see Seward ‘cause the Sealife Center has a big calling as well as fishing and they find us and they are very happy.
J: More independent travelers then..
J: So what was really popular in ’54 and even what you say the first 20 or 30 years that you and Larry had the business? It was mainly work wear. You weren’t doing groceries anymore at that time.
D: It was snow boots. I remember Kickerinos, were a woman’s brand and Sorels have always been a popular brand, which we’ve dropped. And we did a lot of fishing business which we dropped too. We haven’t gone into the neoprene boots, the Grunden’s and Helly-Hansen.
J: But you used to do all that kind of stuff?
D: We did a lot of that.
J: And what was the first thing you said Kickerinos?
D: Kickerinos was a brand of women’s little furry boots. I remember those. Yes, because in those days we had a lot of snow. I remember living, we lived in Clear View and we couldn’t open the windows ‘cause the snow would drift up that high and now look at this year.
J: And where is Clear View at?
S: Behind Three Bears. The three rows of houses.
D: Yeah, Wally Hickel built that and when we moved out we got the last house there and it was a three bedroom and it was $17,500 and we didn’t know how we were gonna pay for it. (Dorothy laughs) And I thought what a difference between ’54 and now.
J:Was it warm though? How did you heat it?
D: Oil heat and it was one little vent in the living room and our dog would always sit on it. (Laughing) We could hardly get the dog off of it. And I remember my mother coming to visit and she couldn’t get over the frost behind the chairs in the living room because it was cold in those days. But we were young and adventurous and it was wonderful.
Heading into the 21st century with Urbach’s, what’s your model?
D: Well first of all, I want to say we’re having a year long celebration.
S: We’re going to have different things throughout the year.
D: We want to kind of say thank you to our local supporters so in the winter and the fall we would like to do something, drawings and give aways all year long. We’ll do something in the summer as well for the tourists. We want to have a banner outside, let them know we’re a hundred years old. We would like to say thank you some way to all those who kept us going. It’s why we’re still here.
J: But you guys aren’t comfortable giving me some examples of speciality stuff that you guys offer?
D: I would just say that we are doing a lot of women’s wear when we didn’t before. We still carry Woolrich, Pendleton and Carhartt which is a big thing. But the special thing is finding different things in women’s wear and shoes, a great line of shoes and handmade items like scarves and hats, gloves and jewelry. Our granddaughter, whose husband is in the military back in North Carolina has a great line of jewelry we carry. We have something different that you won’t find somewhere else.
J:How did Urbach’s basketball league start?
D: We got a letter from the City of Seward and they wanted know if any of the businesses would sponsor the youth basketball team because they needed someone to give money to start it. So I think there were five or six teams in those days. So I said to Larry ‘why don’t we sponsor them all. That‘d be a good advertisement.’ He said ‘sure.’ So we decided to sponsor all of them and that was 21 years ago and we’ve enjoyed doing it. The young people that were in it from the beginning have now grown. Some are married.
S: It’s too bad we don’t have all the years up there (pointing to the large annual league photos that ring the interior of the store)
D: These are just pictures of the last 10 years of it. It’s the volunteers that help keep it going. But you see these little kids in kindergarten just learning how to dribble a ball and then all of a sudden they’re referees. They grow up, so it’s been something that we really enjoy doing. And as a small business we’ve given for everything, whether its a salmon derby booth, we sponsored ten years ago the weigh station (in the harbor) or the library. It’s what you do in a small town to help the community. Because we love living here and we love the people who benefitted and that’s why so many people say its nice to shop locally. We just appreciate the one’s that keep us going. Thank-you.