By Gretchen Wehmhoff
Our parents’ business office was in the basement of our home. They worked for record and tape music distributors before and beyond the pipeline years. It’s what brought our family to Alaska in 1965. Dad had a choice to pioneer the music distribution business in Alaska, or lose his job in western Washington due to layoffs.
Dad represented several companies. When all three of us kids were finally school-aged, Mom started working for one of the distributors – basically causing them to become competitors. Dad covered the Alaska Carrs/Payless chain and more, Mom handled the competition at the Alaska Pay ‘n Save stores. You wouldn’t know they worked for separate companies by watching as they usually helped each other, and that included bringing the family to get the job done.
One night after dinner while my siblings and I were doing our nightly dishes and clean-up chores, Dad checked the evening paper.
“Oh (expletive),” he spat out.
An ad had broken a day early and the product was still in the back rooms of the stores. We all stopped what we were doing, grabbed our jackets and piled into the station wagon. Store employees didn’t rack the records and tapes. Mom and Dad, and in this case, the family did.
Dad called each store from the house/business phone before we headed out. Our parents had well-developed relationships with the department chairs who quickly arranged to have the product waiting for us next to the racks.
We were the crew. In the summer we inventoried. When we drove to Fairbanks every month, we worked the racks. It was a family affair.
Mom and Dad had a payment system called the books. We earned credit on the books. If we wanted to spend money at the movies or buy something, it came off the books. We learned that the family business was our business. You worked. You got paid.
Years later when Dad’s employer changed hands, they told him they had tried to break into the Alaska market for years, but no one wanted to work with anyone other than George and Merle. That was a tribute to our parents’ sense of customer service. People bought from them because George and Merle were responsive. They treated their clients well and with respect – and they lived in Alaska.
Using our home as the business base meant we needed to learn store codes and phone etiquette. There were no cell phones and trying to reach our parents in an emergency meant calling a store.
Each day Mom would leave a note on the fridge for us that might say, “Dad – 5, 9, Mom – 30, 24. Gretchen brown the meat, Steve or Karen peel the potatoes, start the stew.” We knew by the note that Dad was at Payless Aurora Village and Gambell, Mom was at Pay ‘n Save Mountain View and Northern Lights. We all knew to use the Dutch oven.
If the phone rang, there was a protocol.
“Wehmhoff residence, Gretchen speaking.”
“No, I’m sorry, he/she is at an account. May I take a message?”
Our message-taking needed to be clear. We were the customer service representatives for Mom and Dad. The callers often complimented them on their polite children. We understood that our home was the business.
One time my brother’s rock and roll band was practicing in the basement when the phone rang. One of the “not so savvy” members answered the phone before Steve could get to it.
“Call back. We’re practicing,” the guy said before hanging up … on Mom.
The band lost their practice space.
All three of us kids ended up with summer and winter college jobs with Pay ‘n Save. Not necessarily because of our parents, but perhaps because the department managers saw us work from a young age.
Not everyone has the lifestyle that takes you right into the world of wholesale, retail or customer service. We were fortunate. We were gently trained to show respect immediately, to greet adults with hello when they said hi. We had on the job training.
I drove through a fast food line about ten years ago and dang it, they messed up my order … again. I saw the mistake and drove around to the drive through ready to speak my mind. Instead, I held my tongue and simply told them the error. They handed me my new burger as a cook poked his head out of the window.
“Hey Ms. W. That was my fault. I’m sorry I messed up your burger. I guess I just got going.”
My life changed at that moment. The young man was a former student at the high school from which I recently retired. His prospects in life, based on his previous behavior, his “friends” and the choices he made were not looking good. But here he was – employed and taking responsibility for something. Maybe just a burger, but it was something. He had a chance here with a job and the ability to step up. I wasn’t at some spendy white tablecloth restaurant. I was at a fast food restaurant that hired young people and trained them to work with a team, talk nice to customers and start their lives.
“No problem, Chris. It’s so good to see you.”
It was the last time I ever became irritated at a worker in the food industry. These young people were in the right place – learning to work with a team, gain new skills and show up on time everyday in uniform.
This year we have 24 Newsies working varied shifts, handing out the Skaguay Alaskan visitors guide to guests disembarking in our small town. These young workers are the first Skagwegians most passengers see as they leave the ships. The kids are learning to smile and greet folks who enter our community. Many start quietly, a bit shy, but they are soon extending their arms with a paper to every adult they meet.
“Welcome to Skagway.”
They have learned that it isn’t proper to ask for tips, but it’s important to graciously accept them when presented. The kids pose for photos. The new workers understand there is a schedule, a uniform, a time clock, an expectation and a paycheck. They are learning that the most important part of business is showing up ready to work well together.
One youngster was in too much of a hurry to find his shoes, so he came without them. There is a dress code, so he learned that he couldn’t work in stocking feet. He still got to the docks on time with the help of mom, who delivered footwear.
A number of adults have told us about their years as a Newsie and how much they loved it.
We are honored to offer this first job to the children of Skagway. We are grateful to our advertisers who support us so we can print the Alaskan and pay our small ambassadors to welcome guests to Skagway. It’s a small thing, but a big deal.
Customer service in a town like Skagway is imperative. We have a few short months to welcome the world, to encourage them to come back, to spend money and to share their experience for future travelers. We have a uniquely special way to greet them at the Port of Skagway.
Skagway’s children are truly learning that Skagway works together as a port family, that learning the family business is a gift and customer service is everyone’s job. It all starts with a smile, an outstretched arm and a “Welcome to Skagway.”
Skagway News Newsies 1898 and 2014 (historical photo circa 1898 and Skagway file photo circa 2014)
Do you see yourself here at the Skagway Newsie party in 2014? Do you have any pictures from when you were a newsie? Send us your pictures with names, to email@example.com.