There's a reunion going on at the new Gottschalks store that opens today in Soldotna.
"We brought the entire Lamonts staff back, including myself, except for one who found work during the summer," said Linda Newland, who managed the old Soldotna Lamonts and manages the new Gottschalks.
She said nearly three-quarters of her new staff worked five years or more for Lamonts, and some helped open the Soldotna store in 1984.
"It's like being married, in a way," she said. "You know who to stay away from, who is having a bad day ... whose kids are getting a scholarship."
The Soldotna Gottschalks actually has 31 employees, 10 more than the old Lamonts, and it will have much more stock.
"I'm pretty excited to be able to have the level of staff to take better care of our customers and to offer products we didn't have before," Newland said. "We have all the departments Lamonts had, plus some more. The biggest differences are the expanded home products and cosmetics."
There will be clothing for men, women, children and infants, she said. There will be towels, bedding and luggage, and higher-quality shoes than there were at the old Lamonts.
"We'll have twice as much home furnishings -- high-quality pots and pans, lots of high-end home products, coffee makers, crock pots, all the small kitchen appliances," she said. "We'll fill a niche I don't think is presently being filled in this area. Gottschalks categorizes itself as somewhere between J.C. Penney and Nordstrom. We'll see most of our former Lamonts customers and maybe catch a few people who went to Anchorage for brands we did not carry locally."
Lamonts, a chain based in Kirkland, Wash., announced plans last winter to reorganize under federal bankruptcy laws, Newland said. In May, though, the struggling firm told employees that Gottschalks, a chain based in Fresno, Calif., had bought Lamonts' stores and fixtures in order to expand in the Pacific Northwest. A liquidator came to sell the Soldotna stock. The store closed June 18, but only temporarily.
Gottschalks is reopening 34 stores of 38 stores it acquired from Lamonts, said Fred Bentelspacher, vice president for sales promotion and advertising. That gives it a total of 76 stores from Alaska to Southern California, including seven Alaska stores from Juneau to Anchorage and Fairbanks. He said Gottschalks hired 90 percent of roughly 1,500 former Lamonts employees, and it wanted to hire them all.
"We've all been really excited about it," Newland said. "Gottschalks was very generous and considerate with Lamonts employees. They really wanted us to stay. They made every effort to keep every employee in every store."
The wages are the same, she said.
"We didn't lose any seniority," she said. "They paid our first (medical) month's benefits. Nobody lost anything."
Covering the full first month's medical insurance was an incentive, she said. Normally, Lamonts and Gottschalks ask employees to pay a share of the cost.
The store was a scramble Wednesday as workers prepared for the grand opening at 9 a.m. today. Dell Gunter, fragrance manager, wiped and vacuumed new display cases for a mountain of perfumes still in cardboard boxes.
"This will all be done today," Newland said Wednesday. "We have two electricians over there. We had to build this bay and that bay, and we couldn't start until Sunday. That's cutting it pretty close."
Nancy Bergevin and Cori Lund shuffled racks of women's clothing. Others stuck price tags onto shoes arranged between the legs of the tables that would hold them. Newland expected the table tops to arrive Wednesday afternoon. Around the store, though, the shelves and racks were largely stocked, and Gottschalks looked nearly ready to open.
Newland said her staff has been working 12- and 16-hour days.
"We started July 24 with an empty building and fixtures stacked everywhere. We had to clean up the mess we left when we liquidated," she said. "We've been making a video, too. We started on an empty building, and every day, we did a little more. Someday, we'll watch it."
The experienced staff has made opening the store much easier, she said.
Closing Lamonts was tough.
"When the liquidation began, I was on vacation," Newland said. "I got home at about 2 in the morning and saw the big liquidation banner. It gave me a pain in my heart, because I worked here so long. I opened the store in October 1984. I wasn't the manager, but I was here."
She actually started work in 1977 for a leased jewelry department in the Fairbanks Lamonts. She took a job directly from Lamonts in 1982, when the jewelry department left. She became a department manager at the Soldotna Lamonts in 1984, then became Soldotna store manager in 1986.
"I grew up in Lamonts," she said. "I started working at Lamonts when I was 22. My son was a baby. He's 26 now."
Bergevin said opening Gottschalks is exciting.
"I think there's been an anticipation in the community," she said. "We were working close to the front door yesterday. We were watching vehicles continuously pulling up to the front door and peeking in."
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