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Kmart & Me

In Alaska, you have to survive a couple of winters before you're considered more than just a tourist. I had been living in Juneau a little under a year when I had crossed that threshold.

As a transplant from Austin, Texas, I realized something had changed in me when I got the news that the Juneau Kmart, along with more than 300 others across the nation, was going out of business. "Damn! They have the best produce in town," I thought. I was told the freshness was due to Kmart flying in their fruits and veggies rather than shipping them up on barges. I experienced genuine anxiety over the closing of a store I wouldn't have been caught dead shopping at when I was a teenager. What was happening to me? Was I a real Alaskan now?


Located in the state's southeast panhandle, Juneau sits in an archipelago where mountains shoot straight up from the sea. A 1,500-square-mile icefield feeds 38 glaciers smack dab in the city's backyard. Despite its distinguished position as the state capital, Juneau claims only about 31,000 residents, roughly 5 percent of Alaska's population. Did I mention there is no road out? You can only get there by boat or plane and both are expensive propositions. For someone like me living on a journalist's pay, weekend shopping trips and quick visits to Anchorage are out of the question. What happens in Juneau literally stays in Juneau.

I was warned as I was leaving Austin for the so-called Last Frontier that "You can't get avocados in Alaska" - along with a lot of other things. This was pretty important to a guy who had spent the last six years developing a serious addiction to Tex-Mex. But I was tough and I knew sacrifices would have to be made. The warning about avocados turned out to be wrong. Even without Kmart I could still get avocados at the A&P -- thought by locals to stand for Alaskan and Proud -- if they were in stock. But Kmart, mmmm, Kmart had the best avocados in town.

And this was no ordinary Kmart. It was likely the only big box store in Alaska or the Lower 48 (that's what Alaskans call the contiguous United States) that sits in view of a hanging glacier. Nestled between Cairn Peak and Observation Peak (both more than 4,000 feet high), the tip of Thomas Glacier just barely peeps over Blackerby Ridge for motorists and shoppers alike to catch a glimpse of its luminous blue face.

The 120,000-square-foot building remained empty three years later when I moved to Chicago, with retail giant Wal-Mart planning to open up shop. Was it instinct or convenience that made the Big K on Ashland one of my first stops when I got to the Windy City? I've been road-raged four or five times, eaten the obligatory hot dog stuffed with peppers and tomatoes, and snapped off some photos at the observation deck of the Sears Tower. But that moment defining me as a real Chicagoan still hasn't come.

inklebarger@gmail.com



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Posted on February 24, 2006


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