By Kelly Arnold
Special to the Turnagain Times
Kobuk Valley Jade Company was started in Kotzebue, Alaska, in August 1968 by my parents Ray and Marie Heinrichs. They were a couple with a love for Alaska and a desire to take an Alaskan gemstone and create souvenirs that would be valued by tourists who were starting to visit Kotzebue and Nome on both Wien and Alaska Airlines.
Initially they were selling blocks of unpolished jade that had been cut by saws that my father had set up in a workshop area visible to visitors. In those early days, I had the responsibility of oiling the jade to make it look shiny. Soon my dad, who initially was still working as an Operations Manager every summer for B & R Tug and Barge Co., taught himself how to polish the jade with a finish that was permanent using specialized tools and grit.
However, the tourists really wanted jewelry pieces to purchase that were easy to carry home to friends and family. So, they explored how to purchase jewelry findings and learned to assemble simple jewelry items. In time, when B & R Tug and Barge Co. underwent a management change, my father decided to leave the company and work full-time on developing “The Jade Shop.”
During these days my parents always had a free cup of coffee available for all and eagerly welcomed visitors to their shop with the question: “So, where are you folks from?” These conversations often led to lengthy discussions about places around the world while at the same time they shared their love and knowledge of Alaska with their customers.
My family moved from Washington to Anchorage to spend our winters, while I attended fifth through twelfth grade in the Anchorage School District, and we spent summers returning to Kotzebue to operate “The Jade Shop”. These seasonal transitions posed both challenging and exciting for our family as my parents continued to build their business.
Tourism continued to grow in Kotzebue and my parents’ skills at working with jade also grew. They became known for beautiful jade coasters, bookends, clocks and jewelry that they made. During these years, they had a successful mail order business that developed by a tri-fold brochure that they produced and handed out to customers. Customers would get home from their trips and write them requesting more items.
In the early 1970s, my parents decided it was time to move their business out of Kotzebue and temporarily into their home in Anchorage. This was a difficult decision as they had had such a positive experience there working with and getting to know the local Eskimo people.
My mother had grown to have a special interest in recognizing quality ivory carvings and enjoyed her friendships with the carvers. She had also been instrumental, along with other local ladies, in creating the Kotzebue museum and library. Another big community event each summer was the 4th of July celebration and my mother assisted others in putting this on for the village. Many Eskimos from other nearby villages came into Kotzebue each year to attend the events of this special day which included a muktuk eating contest, Eskimo dancing, and a Beauty Pageant where women modeled exquisite parkas.
While working out of our home in Anchorage, my parents purchased some land in Girdwood located at the base of Mt. Alyeska. It was in a prime location, at the base of the mountain, and initially some of the local folks, who didn’t know them, were concerned about what type of business they might establish.
Over time, however, my parents became known and accepted in the Girdwood community as people of integrity and their actions proved their intent to establish an attractive business storefront that would enhance the area.
At first, in March of 1972, they opened their store in the small A-frame that is currently on the property today. While they were selling merchandise out of this building, they were working hard to build and open the large building in October 1976, where Kobuk Valley Jade Company is housed presently.
During the summers, my mother and father enjoyed having lovely flower baskets around their shop for the tourists to marvel at since the long daylight hours and climate here produce such huge flower blossoms. Also during these days, the dirt parking lot was above “The Jade Shop” where the bunny slope is currently located. Many tourist buses would come rolling in and sometimes hundreds of tourists would be wandering around Girdwood spending their time and money. People in RV’s were also frequent customers and it was common then to have people arrive in motorhomes who had traveled across the country to get to Alaska.
In the late 1980s, customers were seeking a place in Girdwood to purchase inexpensive Alaskan souvenirs such as T-shirts, hats, postcards, videos, etc. My mother really didn’t want those items in her store as she felt they would distract from their focus on selling jade, ivory, gold and sculptures. So, at this time, I decided to open up “The Little Kobuk” across the bridge in the small A-frame.
My mom and I had a friendly rivalry over customers but generally just spent time referring our customers next door to see more items for sale. My parents were extremely helpful assisting me to get started, my father helping me to create a suitable physical space for the store and mom assisting with advice and wisdom on creating attractive displays and arranging merchandise.
Their black lab, “Blackie” and cats “Denver” and “Lovey” visited next door often and were testaments to mom’s love of taking in stray animals and making sure they were treated properly. My parents took great pride in putting up beautiful holiday light displays and always enjoyed lighting up the area in the darkness of winter.
In the mid-90s we closed “The Little Kobuk” as larger stores in Anchorage were starting to carry the same merchandise at cheaper prices as they could buy it in larger quantities. Also, at this time, many of the larger tour companies were starting to build their own hotels and have their own gift shops within them so that they no longer had a need to come to “The Jade Shop” on their trips by Girdwood as they would bus their tourists straight from the cruise ships to the hotel for services.
However, my parents by now had developed an extremely loyal following of locals who would bring their Alaskan visitors to visit the store and talk about Alaska over a free cup of coffee as well as customers driving their RVs up the Alcan Highway. Also, some tour operators still did stop and my parents were very grateful for their loyalty and business.
My parents enjoyed their coffee times with their loyal employees as much as they did with their customers. Over the years they shared many pearls of wisdom as well as their opinions about a variety of topics.
My father died in March of 2005 and his death was a huge loss for the family. My mother decided that she wanted to continue operating the store and did so successfully, closing for a few months each winter during the slow season, up until her death.
Her work ethic was admired by most everyone who knew her well and could see her daily drive to keep the store operating and in a manner of the highest standard. Everyone is wondering what will happen to “The Jade Shop” with my mother’s passing last month.
My parents were really what made Kobuk Valley Jade Company hum with productivity and captured people’s interest in jade and Alaska. With them both gone now, and recognizing the tremendous leadership that my mother demonstrated after my father’s death, the family is determining a new purpose and mission for the company.
The store is closed as of April 1, and the family would like to thank all their loyal customers and friends, business associates, tour operators, and the community of Girdwood for all their support and business over the past four decades.