Bell's close-out draws a crowd
Adrian Nash with Emiglio the robot.
For now, Emiglio has a new home.
The diminutive, 20-something robot was among treasures snatched up at an early-morning salvage sale Saturday at the original Bell’s Store, a Second Avenue landmark that closed in 2011 after about 50 years of operation.
Residents of all ages turned out – eight were in line when doors opened at 7 a.m. – to pore over surplus inventory that included generations of dry goods, souvenirs and vintage Alaskana such as a pile of ANB belt buckles, varsity jackets emblazoned with “Klukwan,” and a black-velvet painting of a walrus.
Need a 4,480-piece jigsaw puzzle? How about a glass breast pump? Or a pair of blue jeans sized to fit 640-pound Andre the Giant?
Resident Kathryn Friedle scooped up a box of about 10 “Alaska” letter openers, dated- looking but still in their original wrappers. “I took them all, every one of them,” Friedle said. “I plan to give them as gifts to family back in the Midwest. I have a lot of relatives. I like to give them gifts from Alaska.”
Russ Bell, 26, grandson of store founder Jane Bell, presided over the sale that continued Sunday and “became a lingering, beer-drinking kind of thing.” Bell said the leftovers, which included items like 20-year-old Red Wing boots never removed from the box they came in, represented the store’s many incarnations.
In the early 1960s, Jane Bell took over a five-and-dime that was in the building, transforming it with men’s and women’s fashions. With the timber boom of later decades, the inventory changed to boots and work clothes for millhands. The advent of regular cruise ship dockings more recently brought a switch to items like furs, gold and moose-nugget swizzle sticks.
“They carried a little bit of everything, and over the years they went with the flow of the community, which is typical of what small business does,” said shopper Jan Hill, a lifetime resident who worked at Bell’s during summer breaks from college in the 1960s. Hill’s mom worked there, too.
On Saturday, Hill bought some jigsaw puzzles and macramé cord, but let on that nostalgia was part of her visit. “There were all kinds of things that I’d forgotten about in there. I kept saying, ‘Oh, I remember these.’”
For baby-boomers, Saturday’s sale was like opening a time capsule. Inside was a full, 16-ounce glass bottle of Coca-Cola, a crystal radio kit (“Listen to local AM and FM stations on a radio that you built yourself!”) and a Playtex “I Can’t Believe It’s a Girdle” girdle. A selection of novelty underwear offered there in the 1980s, though, was apparently popular enough to sell out.
Russ Bell said his family special-ordered items embossed with the town’s name, like the Klukwan varsity jackets, but distant suppliers didn’t always nail local spellings. He still has a package of refrigerator magnets showing a loon on a lake in “Hanes, Alaska.” “That happened all the time.”
Bell started clerking at the store when he was 7. For Christmas one year, grandmom Jane bought him Emiglio, advertised as a “walking, talking robot” that was going to help Bell serve customers. “The idea was that it was going to run around the store and help answer their questions,” Bell said. “The problem was that Emilio required about $50 in batteries to operate.”
Adrian Nash, a cook at the Bamboo Room, bought Emiglio. “I think he wants to get it working so it can run up and down the Pioneer Bar, serving drinks, but on Saturday it was only able to go in figure 8s,” Bell said.
Bell’s Store was also home to Doris’ Flower Cart, the cut flower shop run by Russ’ mom, Doris Bell, a business now operated at a location in the old city hall building next door. In the closed store, the flower department was located astride the Doris K, the wheelhouse of a wooden troller recycled as a store display, now needing a new home.
“Every kid in town has taken that thing out to catch a fish,” Russ Bell said. “Every 30 and 40-year-old I’ve talked to about the sale asks me, ‘Do you still have the boat?’”
Besides the boat, Bell also has a photo-processing machine, from another era of the store’s history. “I guess I still need to have a large-item sale… I’ll keep hashing through stuff. I’m doing everything I can before it all has to go to a landfill near you.”