A Granddaughter's Perspective
by Sydney Thompson-Beier
September 23, 2003
photo by Dick Kauffman 09/22/03
My grandfather, Robert Shorts, together with his wife, Betty, replanted my poor unsuspecting mother, Marsha Thompson and her brother, Gary Shorts, from sunny California to Ketchikan when they bought the store in 1961. The airport was at Annette Island at that time and I remember the story perfectly. My mother at 13, stepping off the plane in Southeast Alaska for the first time and into a torrential downpour.
"You might need these. My grandfather said as he handed my mother and grandmother those plastic rain bonnets that tie in the front at the neck. I think they are still sold at the store to this day. When I worked there, they were at the beginning of the first aisle across from the registers on the right hand side next to the umbrellas and wallets.
My grandfather was a tall man, though years of hovering over a desk hunched his posture. Those of you who knew him or remember him probably remember him as Bob. I remember that he used to always call me Sid and had big blue veins under the skin in his hands that I used to like to play with. He was stubborn and old fashioned and complained about the holes in the knees of my jeans. He chewed every bite of food 100 times and was always the last one finished at the dinner table. He had thick shiny black hair that never fell out or turned grey, even at his death at 75.
As far as I am concerned, he was a genius. He had the insight to produce a business that would provide financial stability to my family for three generations, he and his wife, my mother and my uncle, and me and my brother. Personally, it gave me the opportunity to do whatever I wanted. It gave me the house I lived in for 18 years, it sent me to Europe twice, to the colleges of my choice, and bought me the car that I drove for 9 years.
But it is not the material gain that I am most concerned with. It is the 29 years of memories that in one way or another, all connect to the building on 500 Mission Street. All the things that happened there to me and everyone else who built a life working at my family's business.
photo by Dick Kauffman 09/22/03
"Does this hurt? Does that hurt?
In the eleven different places I have been employed throughout my life, Ben Franklin was the first one at 14. I followed the long tradition of my mother and uncle, who also worked there starting in their early teens. I hated it. I hated the fish department, the fabric department, stocking, pricing, ordering, cleaning the bird cages, washing the enormous windows lining the front of the store, wiping down the shelves, and worst of all, running the cash registers. That's where I spent the majority of the time, however, probably because I employed my grandmother's advice "kill them with kindness very convincingly. Then suddenly, it wasn't so bad anymore. Call it maturity, call it defeat, I actually began to like it. I got pretty good at 10 key and was amused by the variety of stupid questions I would hear. Especially from tourists.
"Do you take American money?
"Do you know where Kentucky is?
"Could you tell me what I can buy with this?
The last came from little children who dropped 1000 pennies on the counter in front of me.
Although I am grateful for business from people temporarily visiting Ketchikan, (I know they are very important to the economy), I find it amusing that their official title in our household is "Stupid Tourists. I think we can all relate to that when they are standing in the middle of the road with their cameras pointed at the Welcome to Ketchikan sign and the looming Deer Mountain in the background.
Aside from the brief tourist stint in the summer, many other things were happening throughout the rest of the year. The Back to School Sale which I both loved and dreaded, especially when I'd open the door at 9 in the morning and there were already 10 people waiting outside. Halloween, when half the costumes found their way to the floor before they ever made it into the plastic bags when they were purchased. The Christmas season, when I'd get return requests on 50 different packages of lights that didn't work. Christmas Eve was my favorite. Everyone who was unfortunate or lucky enough to work that day got dressed up in their best duds and we had a party in the back stock room. Around four o'clock chairs would be pulled out of the break room and the sliding door to the back would be drawn closed. The employees would sip eggnog and munch on holiday cookies during their breaks. My uncle would always hand out Christmas bonuses and announce the earnings of the last year. We have hordes of photos from these parties over the years. They began with the whole family, including my grandparents, then change over the years with the disappearance of old faces, the emergence of new ones, and the size and width of the frames of my mother's glasses as dictated by the shifting trends in fashion throughout the 70's and 80's and 90's.
photo by Dick Kauffman 09/22/03
As much as I reflect with fondness about Ben Franklin, it never occurred to me to become a large part in its operation. Call it a lack of interest, a lack of loyalty, a shift in priorities. It was never really considered that I take a greater role other than the one I did on and off for 8 years behind the cash register. Maybe my family knew before I did that there was another world that I was to be part of. Maybe the whole country is shifting this way. We call our founding fathers George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, but I think it was that "Greatest Generation of my grandparents". They set the true foundation for the great economic, military, and cultural success of America. They fought wars then came home to hand to all of us an opportunity to make America truly the greatest country in the world.
The closing of the doors of Ben Franklin on November 1st to me will be the end of an era in many ways. It's another example of the dissolving connection we all have to those great men and women of the early part of the last century. They are dying now and leaving it up to us. I still don't know what I will do with this pearl that has been given to me. I know I have been scattered to the other side of the world, yet through a another possibility granted to me by my grandparents. I married a German.
I even wear my grandmother's wedding ring given to her by my grandfather as my own.
I will not make it home in time to wander down those long aisles, hear the ching of the cash register or the greetings of many of the employees that have worked there since I can remember. Even though they have aged, as I have, they all still look the same to me. I guess that's the way I'd like to keep it in my memory. I don't want my last visions to be contaminated with going out of business signs and dismantled and sold off merchandise and equipment. It is funny that the only photo I have of the store at my home in Germany is an old black and white from 1961. It faces out the front windows of the store and I can see St. John's Episcopal church through them. There are Grand Opening signs on the glass and there is a woman with her child walking out front. I wonder if they've been in recently.
I want to remember the bustle of midday activity and the calm serenity I would find when the lights were off and I would wonder through the quietness as my mother would count the money in the registers at night. I want to remember my uncle walking through the store and the parting of the employees like the Red Sea in his presence, back to their duties from their chatting or gossiping with each other or customers. How he used to carry his cigarette through the store (he was the only one allowed to do that), and drop ashes everywhere he went. How he used to call the undergarments skivvies and crack me up.
I cringe when I think about the building that will be emptied of so many things that I thought would be there forever. Because that's the only way I've ever known them and I can't imagine it differently. I don't want to see what Cape Fox will do with the building that they just purchased from my mother. When I do get back to Ketchikan, one of these days, I wonder if I will even be able to walk down Mission street again.
I also wonder, if in two, ten, twenty years time, I will still dream of that place like I do now. The water in the fish tanks is always green and the fish inside are too big. But I still can't catch them. I am asking my uncle if he will hire me again, and I start my first day back behind the cash register which I operate as if I haven't missed a day. I am in the stock room during Christmas and everyone is there, Winona, Gwen, Barb, and Kristy. They are asking me how I've been and what I am doing there. I tell them that I missed it.