Shrew's Nest gets new owners; old name stays

Posted: Tuesday, September 04, 2001

This summer, Cooper Landing marked the end of an era when new owners took over a landmark business, the Shrew's Nest.

At the end of July, Cindy and Karl Romig began running the popular and picturesque little general store on the Sterling Highway. They purchased it from Joyce Olsen, who started the store and ran it for 25 years.

"I am so glad I sold to someone local. That is the neatest thing," Olsen said.

The Romigs already are expanding the store, remodeling a former storage room and adding new features such as feed and a tanning bed. They plan to do some landscaping in the spring.

But they are committed to keeping the store's rustic charm, Cindy Romig said.

The name will stay the same, too.

Olsen said that the Romigs' daughter, Meghan Casqueira-Romig, worked in the store for three years, has helped her parents during the transition and asked them to change the name.

"No, Cindy said she wants to keep that name. It's just perfect," Olsen said.

She explained, "It had nothing to do with my personality, although I do respond if people call me 'the shrew.'"

The name dates back to the store's founding. After Olsen and her family first came to Alaska in 1965, they operated the former Sportsmen's Lodge in Cooper Landing and read a lot of books about Alaska.

One story told of two miners who spent the winter sharing an isolated, cramped cabin. Valuable items disappeared, and each accused the other of theft and lying. Their relationship soured so badly they ended up killing each other. When investigators later searched the cabin, they found it infested with shrews and, in the animals' nest, a cache of the missing items.

Because her husband, Larry, was such a pack rat, the story struck a chord with the family.

"He would go to the dump and come back with more than he took," she said.

After getting out of the lodge business, the Olsens decided to open a hardware-type store to meet the community's need.

"Betty Fuller, who had the post office, had a little hardware and a few cards," Olsen said. "But if you needed anything, you had to run to town -- which was 50 miles."

They bought up the inventory of a hardware store closing in Seward. It was so small that their take fit in the back of one pickup.

They started in a small building that had been a jewelry store and moved, four years later, into the current building, which they built themselves.

"We didn't want to be called 'the rat's nest.' Pack rat was more like it. Shrews have the same proclivity," she said.

Although Larry was the one who wanted to start the store, his work on the North Slope kept him away enough that Joyce ended up running it more and more. When the Olsens divorced in 1985, she got the store and associated property. Her accountant advised her to sell out and leave. She stayed, experimented with inventory and turned it into a money maker.

"It's been my baby ever since," she said.

Three years ago, Olsen was diagnosed with cancer. Since then, she has been battling the disease and trying to sell the store.

The Romigs' purchase was a dream come true for both parties.

Karl's parents had a vacation home near Kenai Lake while he was growing up. Cindy had her eye on Cooper Landing when she was growing up near Kenai and moved there when she turned 20.

"I always said, 'Someday I'm going to live there,'" she recalled.

Over the years, Cindy worked in several retail settings and, when the Shrew's Nest went up for sale, she knew she wanted it. After working out the details, she and her family took over at the end of July.

Cindy said the store has a little bit of everything. It carries hardware, building supplies, gifts, videos, arts and crafts supplies, snacks, school supplies, ammunition and fishing gear. It has everything a general store would, except groceries. The store has a tradition of community service, selling books and T-shirts to raise funds for Cooper Landing groups and projects.

"You can always come here and find something you can use," she said. "My boys are trappers, and they even sell their furs here."

It serves a mix of residents and tourists. Although the year-round clientele are longtime Cooper Landing residents, Cindy gets a kick out of talking to visitors. Their awe at the beauties of Alaska and Cooper Landing remind her of how lucky she is to live there, she said.

"We are having a great time. We just love it. The whole family does," she said of clerking at the store.

To smooth the transition, Cindy relied on Meghan, who was familiar with the store and its stock, and Olsen, who still lives in the adjacent house and shares a phone line with the Shrew's Nest. The Romigs' other two children, 15-year-old Tyler and 12-year-old Erick, also help out when not in school.

Cindy called Olsen her mentor.

"Everybody likes Joyce," she said.

"She would do anything for anybody. She's really nice."

Olsen, for her part, is looking forward to the perks of retirement. Her cancer has been in remission for six months. Her strength is returning, and she plans to devote herself to creative pursuits such as poetry, song writing, sewing and her paintings, which have won awards over the years and been displayed in the store.

Olsen stressed that even though she plans to move out of her house in October and will spend the winter with a friend in Oregon, she will remain involved with Cooper Landing.

"I'm going to be a snowbird after all these years," she said.

"I'm going to commute back and forth. ... I couldn't stand to be in any warmer climate in the summer."

As a child and young woman she traveled the world and lived many places. She said she did not want to come to Alaska originally. But the land "got ahold of" her, the years in the store cured her shyness and the warmth of the people in Cooper Landing won her heart.

"It will always be home," she said.

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