SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska
Column - Commentary

More than just a place to shop


March 09, 2020
Monday PM

Ketchikan, Alaska -
I grew up on the "West End" of Ketchikan, that "Nouvelle Frontière" of Our Fair Salmon City that really hit its stride in the decade after the pulp mill opened and Ketchikan was in need of housing as the community grew dramatically.  Never mind that the I house I was raised in had been built by one of my great uncles back in to the 1920s, the area around it really began to boom in the 1950s and 1960s.

jpg  Dave Kiffer

Natch, it was called the West End, because it was west of Downtown and needed a name to differentiate it from that other suburb west of Downtown, Newtown. I suppose it could have been called New Newtown, but that would have been awkward.

Speaking of Newtown, someone asked me recently where "Newtown" ends and the "West End" begins. Good question. I have no clue. Maybe past the Lutheran Church? Maybe the old Ellis Air hanger buildings? White Cliff School?

I just know that by the time you reach the giant concrete bunkers of Tongass Towers and the Marine View, you are clearly in the West End. The bunkers are an important point here, because besides housing hundreds of my fellow Ketchikanians over the past half century and acting as giant Southeaster deflectors to cause wind tunnels that can knock you off your feet, they were also the location of the two major West End grocery emporiums, Wingren's and Log Cabin. In fact, the Marine View was originally called the Wingren Court when it first opened. This was before the beach between the feet of Jefferson and Madison streets was filled in and both stores moved across Tongass Avenue and became "superstores" before we even knew what that word meant.

But, of course, I digress.

I just wanted to establish that I was not a big user of Tatsuda's downtown grocery emporium in my youth. I remember a few times, going to the family's smaller store on Stedman Street when my father would grocery-up at Tatsuda's before fishing trips. That was usually right after icing-up at NEFCO and liquoring-up at the Potlatch. But that, of course, is a column for another day.

My first real memories of going to Tatsuda's was when the new store was being built. Technically we weren't supposed to leave Schoenbar Junior High at lunch time but those of us with motorcycles could usually make a break for it at lunch time and zip down to Tatsuda's for different food options.  Even so, I continued to spend most of the my grocery pennies out on the West End.

But that changed when I moved Downtown in the early 1990s. By then Log Cabin had disappeared and been replaced by A&P which was in the West West End, waaaaaayyy out by the Ferry Terminal (which used to be the edge of nowhere when I was growing up) and Wingrens had  morphed into SeaMart/Carrs/Safeway.

Anyway, it was just easier to go to Tatsuda's. At first it was even easier to go to the mini-Tatsuda's "Jr's" which was in the NBA building, half way between work and home. But "Jr's" eventually closed and it was still just a lot easier to go Tatsuda's than it was to drive "all the way across town" to A&P or SeaMart/Carrs/Safeway.

You notice that people actually talk like that. They say something is "all the way across town" as if they are discussing a locale on the dark side of the Moon.  Of course, Ketchikan is a town where folks grumble about a 20-minute commute to work as if it is a major life imposition. Seriously, I once lived in Los Angeles where it was a two-hour commute TO THE BATHROOM.

Natch, I am one of the those grumblers. My wife loves a couple of food items that are only at A&P and I roll my eyes and sigh because it is such a freaking imposition to drive "all the way across town" (about six minutes) to A&P.

But I digress, again.

Back to Tatsuda's, which is where we have gone pretty much daily since 1992 and where it is possible we may never go again. I still have hopes that Katherine and Bill can pull a financial rabbit of their Diva/Divo crowns and reopen, but even if they do it won't be anytime soon because the landslide that clipped the side of the building has made the rest of it unrepairable. They will have to completely rebuild. If they can find the money to do so.

It's a sharp reminder of just how quickly things can change. One day you are making a quick stop to get some cat litter and a couple of things for dinner (that you forgot to get the day before) and suddenly you are looking at a local business that may have almost instantaneously become as much a part of Ketchikan's "past" as Piggly Wiggly, the store that Paul Wingren once clerked in. Which is really shocking when you consider that Tatsuda's  - in its 104 years - has survived two fires, the Depression and the internment of the entire family in the early 1940s.

But beyond that, for the past 25 years Tatsuda's has been our family store. I have frequently joked to staff that it is not a good day unless we visit Tatsuda's multiple times  (the family record is four times - one day I stopped in three times and Charlotte visited once). Its downtown location means that - for us anyway - it was always just a quick hop in the car when we forgot something or changed our weekly meal "plan."

And that is something that frequently happens. For example, the other night we switched our meal because we were without green onions. We had forgotten to get them the day before. I blame that on the lonnnng, mind-numbing drive out to A&P.

Once upon a time, I would have just hopped in the car and zipped down to Tatsuda's to get the missing item (along with a candy bar, a soda, a small salad, some cat treats, a couple of cans of spaghetti and meatballs, a chocolate milk, a bag of chips, two paper towels and some heavy cream because, well, because no one has ever walked out of Tatsuda's with just one thing and I won't be the first).

But since Tatsuda's was no longer open. I was faced with the interminable 10-minute slog across town and I said no.

All of a sudden we are going to have be more organized. We can no longer forget stuff, or just stop by the store on the way home from whatever evening engagement that has engaged us. This is an adjustment that we are not interested in making.

Any store can provide the stuff you need. But that is not why we have shopped at Tatsuda's so enthusiastically and for so long.

In many ways it has been the anti big box, the anti superstore.

For example, over the years, there has been very little turnover in the staff. This is unusual in an industry where turnover is not just some apple thing you get a the bakery. I swear that in some stores you see half the staff leave by lunch time. But at Tatsuda's even the checkers tended to stick around for decades. When they asked "how you were doing" as they rung you up, they meant it. And of course we followed their lives as well. Noting as children grew up and families ebbed and flowed.

It was also an important focus point for downtown. As the downtown shifted over the years and many year-round businesses left for the West End or elsewhere, Tatsuda's remained an anchor, not just for downtown but for the entire south end of the community. Even for the summer visitors, as tourists often sought out the only grocery store within walking distance of the cruise docks.

For those of us who still lived downtown, it became a defacto community center where you frequently saw other downtown denizens. The dozens of flyers that were posted on its windows and walls - and those of the neighboring Alaska Liquor were a literal community bulletin board.

Then there is the Tatsuda family itself. Few local families can trace their heritage back a full century and fewer still have provided so much to the community over their time here. Ketchikan history is full of people who came, who saw, who exploited, and left. Most businesses would have folded after the first or second fire. Many would have left for good when their own government ignored decades of loyalty and shipped them off to internment camps. Instead, the Tatsuda's returned and went back to making Ketchikan one of the most liveable places in Alaska.

My predecessors are the next door neighbors to generations of Tatsudas up at Bayview Cemetery. There is a reason for that.

Tatsuda's also represents a significant personal milestone.  More than a quarter century ago, Charlotte and I were returning from attending a Monthly Grind out in Saxman. As usual - since it was on the way home - we stopped at Tatsuda's to get a few things. And we decided to get married.

Well, it was a little more elaborate than that. A couple we knew had announced from the stage of the Grind that they were getting married. And as Charlotte and I pondered the options in the frozen food aisle at Tatsuda's we also decided that, after a couple of years of dating, it was time we got married too. Oddly, enough the other couple never did actually get married. But we celebrated our 25th Anniversary last fall.

So some times, you can go into a grocery store - especially one like Tatsuda's -  and come home with something entirely unexpected. Worked for us.

Yes, without Tatsuda's, we can still get our stuff elsewhere, we can always get stuff elsewhere. But in a small town like Ketchikan, shopping is more than filling whatever mercantile needs the household has.

Sometimes, it is filling that more important need, the one for community.

Without Tatsuda's, our community has just become a lot more needy.





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Dave Kiffer is a freelance writer living in Ketchikan, Alaska.

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