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Wright, Elwin

by Elwin Wright

During the period 1942-46, I recall fondly my years as a high school boy working at B.M. Behrends Co. in the grocery department. As soon as classes ended each day, about 3:30, I’d dash down the hill to the store, throw on my apron and I would go to it. I had a job, I was earning money, and best of all, I was thoroughly enjoying it.

It was WWII. Many of the channel’s young men were off in the service, so as a young teenager, much was expected of me. In fact, this was true for all kids of high school age at the time. There were ample job opportunities for us and we were given extra responsibilities. I began by cleaning, helping stock, loading and unloading goods. Next I was expected to help fill orders. Soon I was receiving telephone orders and (sounds quaint now) waiting on customers! My ego was pumped and I was off and running!

No super markets existed in the area at that time. If you headed out Glacier Highway it was DeHart’s for the groceries at Auke Bay. Douglas had Feusi and Jensens. Juneau had several competing groceries and a few mom and pop places like Glover’s and Harbor Market. Competing for business were George Brothers, Case Lot (Irwin’s), Sanitary (Bavard’s), 20th Century (Bates and Cope), Home Grocery (Hermle’s) and of course Behrends. At the time meat products were sold exclusively in meat markets. Our baked goods (bread) were supplied by Sully’s or San Francisco (Messerschmidt’s) bakeries.

A big majority of all business in groceries was done on credit. Customers received a monthly statement of their charges. Cash and carry was very rare. The emphasis was on telephone service, and delivery! Hardly anyone carried home their groceries. I don’t recall any store, including Behrends, with a parking lot. But we had three deliveries daily. And though the war was on and the Channel area was bustling, all stores (except Glover’s) closed at 5:30 daily and remained closed Sundays. There was no “Open 24 Hrs” then!

Our supplies arrived weekly by ship. Regular air service hadn’t arrived yet. We’d either pick goods up at the dock or have them hauled to us by local transfer companies like Reliable, North or Foster. Business was good everywhere. Even in the most inclement weather, the phones would be ringing all day and the grocery trucks went where taxis feared to go!

My boss was John Krugness, a great mentor and a kind and gentle man who never lost his famous Norwegian accent! In the other part of the store, managing things was the noted John Doyle Bishop, but that’s another story. Behrends, being a department store meant we regularly delivered certain items to the ladies of South Franklin Street. We had no real rationing then, just some brief shortages. I do recall the long lines for nylon stockings when they hit town.

Besides our regular customers, Behrends (and others) would bid on government orders, such as Coast Guard, Forest Service, Fish and Wildlife, etc. My job was to scour the town to complete the orders, often “borrowing” from our competitors.

It was the feel and the smell of the place that held me...the oiled wooden floors, the coffee grinder. Nothing was pre-packaged. We sliced cheese, bagged candy, sacked oranges and potatoes, weighed out dry beans, fruit, etc. We did sell bacon and we sliced it for you! And remember, at holiday time, you received your box of Japanese oranges (wooden) and your calendar. On Saturdays, I was a helper on deliveries. We used folding wooden boxes and carefully unloaded their contents, placing every item where the customer requested and remembered to always pick up those empty milk bottles.

It was not only fun but a true education. The daily contact with a wide range of people (Juneau had it’s share of fascinating characters), a chance to buzz around town and observe what was happening (the dock, the city dump, Alaska Coastal, Governor’s Mansion, hospital) and of course, an introduction to the world of business.

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