Longtime Chugiak-Eagle River businesses cut niche in changing community

Thursday, July 6, 2017 - 14:01
  • Star photo by Kirsten Swann Cindy Montgomery at The Book Shelf in Eagle River on June 29, 2017. The local bookstore opened for business in 1998.
  • Inside The Book Shelf in Eagle River on June 29, 2017. The local bookstore opened for business in 1998. (Star photo by Kirsten Swann)
  • A banner hangs inside The Book Shelf in Eagle River on June 29, 2017. The local bookstore opened for business in 1998. (Star photo by Kirsten Swann)
  • Linda McLendon gives a haircut at Hilda’s Barbershop in Eagle River on July 1, 2017. The local business is the oldest barbershop in town. (Star photo by Kirsten Swann)
  • Star photo by Kirsten Swann Linda McLendon gives a haircut to Walter Reihle IV at Hilda’s Barbershop in Eagle River on July 1, 2017. The local business is the oldest barbershop in town.
  • Linda McLendon gives a haircut to Walter Reihle IV at Hilda’s Barbershop in Eagle River on July 1, 2017. The local business is the oldest barbershop in town. (Star photo by Kirsten Swann)

Inside Hilda’s Barber Shop, a Downtown Eagle River landmark, longtime local customers chat about everything from family, marriage and divorce to summer vacations and times gone by.

On a rainy Saturday afternoon in early July, the conversation turned to business.

After 28 years at the Eagle River barbershop, Linda McLendon has seen plenty of local storefronts come and go. This time, a customer told her, it was the Eagle River Blockbuster. A nearby Trendsetters salon had recently closed, too.

“So many people now just drive to that Tikahtnu center,” said a customer from Chugiak, sitting for a trim in McLendon’s chair. “That’s what’s killing a lot of stuff out this way.”

Hilda’s has seen a steady decline in business over the last decade or so, McLendon said, but so far, it’s ridden out the storms. Customers still fill the worn barbers’ chairs under the unblinking gazes of the mounted big game heads on the walls. The mirrored front door still open like clockwork six days a week, bringing in many of the same men who’ve been coming in for years, she said.

There are other hairstylists and salons in Chugiak-Eagle River, but Hilda’s is the only bona fide barbershop in town, and that might just be the key to its longevity, McLendon said.

“The military keeps us going,” she said. “Old timers have a lot to do with it.”

While shifting economic conditions and changing times continue to make their mark on Chugiak-Eagle River commerce, a handful of local businesses have stood firm. When it comes to commercial sustainability, experts say, a variety of factors come into play.

“It’s people that are able to adapt to the conditions that are on the ground – being able to grow beyond your business plan and being able to respond,” said Jon Bittner, executive director with the nonprofit Alaska Small Business Development Center. “We find that the businesses that do the best are the ones that really integrate into their community the most.”

The SBDC provides free business advisory services and low-cost educational programs to entrepreneurs around the state, according to staff. It sees about 1,000 new businesses per year, Bittner said. But not everyone can make it in the long run.

“With people’s ability to spend money shrinking – how do you attract those dollars?” Bittner said. “It’s going to be promoting your brand, getting out there and making that connection as to why it’s so important to support local businesses.”

The vast majority of Alaskan employers are small businesses, according to the U.S. Small Business Administration. In 2012, small businesses employed more than half of the state’s private workforce, according to a 2015 SBA report. And in Chugiak-Eagle River, long-established small businesses continue to be some of the longest-operating businesses in town.

At The Book Shelf, a used book store just a few doors down from Hilda’s, owner Cindy Montgomery has worked among the shelves for 18 of the shop’s 19 years in business, she said.

In the age of e-readers, books printed on paper still draw loyal readers.

“We have a pretty good following of people who have been here and keep supporting small businesses,” Montgomery said. “I’ve seen kids that were little kids growing up and bringing their kids in – it’s like, ‘Woah, how did that happen? Where did the time go?’”

Stacks of books and overstuffed shelves cram the The Book Shelf’s floor. Endless volumes of floppy-paged fantasy and nonfiction and hardcover classics line the walls. Customers come mainly from Chugiak-Eagle River, Montgomery said, but the shop has been known to draw readers from Anchorage, the Matanuska-Susitna Borough and beyond. Recently, she said, there was a customer from Fairbanks, where the local used-book store is closing its doors.

To Montgomery, books have a tactile charm no Kindle can ever match, she said. Still, she said, the digital revolution is taking its toll on her brick-and-mortar business. Because more people are reading books via electronic devices, used copies of many of the bigger titles take longer to make it to the local book store. Business has declined since The Book Shelf’s heyday, Montgomery said.

“We started off slow, then built up and then we’re over the hump,” she said. “It is slowing down some.”

It’s still going, though, she said. Since she began working at the bookstore in the Eagle River Shopping Center nearly two decades ago, she said, there’s been moderate turnover. A few businesses didn’t make it, she said. Others have stayed put.

“There’s no place really to grow in Eagle River, so we’re kind of stagnant,” she said.

Outside Alaska’s major hubs, the commercial ecosystem can work differently, said Bittner at the SBDC. Traditional business plans are faced with the unique challenges of distinctly Alaskan communities, from suburbs like Chugiak-Eagle River to off-grid villages in rural parts of the state. Populations are smaller. A sense of community is larger, Bittner said. While solid fundamentals are important, “You have to build your business model with certain Alaska realities in mind,” Bittner said.

Over time, he said, that can make or break a company, large or small.

“Yes, it’s all about the business, but it’s also about finding a sense of place within the community,” he said.

Contact reporter Kirsten Swann at kirsten.swann@alaskastar.com.

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