Working in Mountain View: Small business, big effect

While they say the best things in life are free, it’s nice to have a little spending money around the holiday season — especially if you have a teenage daughter with a birthday the day after Christmas.

Ellen Booth, 41, has faced that struggle for a while now.

On the day before Thanksgiving, she stood behind the long glass counter inside Smoke Signals — the recently opened smoke shop in the Mountain View Plaza — and talked about all the ways her new $10-an-hour part-time job there would make things better this winter.

There are nearly too many to count.

She could afford a bigger turkey for Thanksgiving dinner, and invite more people to come share it with her family. Christmas wouldn’t feel quite so tight this year. And when her daughter turns 15 on Dec. 26, there will be a separate celebration and separate birthday presents; not just re-wrapped, set-aside Christmas presents like there have been for so many years past.

While Alaska’s unemployment rate continues to inch upward, business growth in Mountain View has created new jobs for hundreds of people.

“Working here has helped tremendously, you have no idea,” said Booth, who was hired by the shop a little more than a month ago.

Smoke signals3

Owned by husband-and-wife team Mike and L.J. Lee, Smoke Signals is just the latest in a string of new businesses to open up shop in Mountain View this year alone.

The Lees said they moved to the neighborhood after seeing the success of other smoke shops in the area. A few doors down, Mountain View’s first veterinary practice is preparing to start accepting patients in January and hire more than half a dozen new employees. In Glenn Square, there’s the massive Bass Pro Shops Outpost, which employs several dozen Mountain View residents, and the family owned Kriner’s Burgers and Pies, which provides jobs for more than two dozen people.

Up the street, an Anchorage entrepreneur is preparing to open Mountain View’s first craft brewery in early 2015. At the other end of Mountain View Drive, there’s a German eatery opened by veteran restaurateur William Hoopai and a handful of mobile food and drink vendors set up in a gravel lot on the corner of North Klevin Street. Spread throughout the neighborhood are a variety of residential housing developments that put even more people to work.

Mountain View is awash with new opportunities.

For Booth, those opportunities are opening doors that had been closed for a long time. She said the job at Smoke Signals is her first in about four years – “not by choice.”

Life just worked out like that.

About 25 years ago in Washington state, Booth gave birth to her oldest son and dropped out of high school. When her family packed their bags and moved north to Alaska in 1995, the first thing she did was start working to catch up. She obtained her diploma at the age of 21; government assistance helped her stay afloat while she completed her high school education.

Now, she said she plans on going back to school to study human services with help from the Alaska Division of Vocational Rehabilitation.

When she first moved to Alaska, her father ran the Fred Meyer in Muldoon and for about a year, Booth worked for the Northern Lights Hotel; now boarded up and fenced off and abandoned.

“The bar used to be beautiful,” Booth recalled. “Oh my goodness, it was all brass; you had to polish the hell out of that stuff.”

After the hotel, she began working at Capone’s – owned by her sister’s husband at the time. The family business helped Booth take care of her son and her infant daughter, and when Capone’s was sold to a new owner, she went on to work for a string of eastside gas stations; a Tesoro on Muldoon Road, then a Holiday.

It wasn’t the safest job. Some customers were violent. One night, a waitress at the Cabin Tavern overheard two men talking about plans to rob the gas station where Booth was working. She said she spent the rest of the evening by the cash register with one panic button in her pocket and another on a lanyard around her neck while police kept watch outside. Threats at work seemed to come with the territory.

She finally left. For about three years, she homeschooled her preteen daughter while her husband, who was employed as a pipelayer, supported their family. Her disabled son’s social security benefits helped, too.

When her husband was injured on the job, though, everything changed. Years of heavy labor at Alaska construction sites had taken their toll on his body.

“He’s never been able to go back to work; he’s got a piece of mesh from here to here, here to here,” said Booth making a sweeping gesture across her lower abdomen.

His injury put them between a rock and a hard place. Booth started filling out job applications. She applied for food stamps and hated the feeling, but she didn’t see another choice.

Booth said she submitted around 15 job applications without ever hearing back; she said she missed the human interaction absent from online job applications, and she wanted to be able to introduce herself to a potential employer in person. She said that’s what customer service is all about anyway, “You have to be able to speak to people and pull people in.”

For a while, it felt like she was wasting time submitting applications into the bottomless void of the worldwide web, but she kept at it.

Then, one day, her son noticed a new tenant in the business plaza across the street.

“My son was watching them open the store and fix it up, and he goes, ‘I think they’re opening a smoke shop over there, or a corner store,’” Booth recalled.

When Smoke Signals put up a big new “Tobacco” sign over its door, she walked across the street to buy a pack of cigarettes and asked Mike Lee if he happened to be hiring. It was the face-to-face chance she was waiting for.

“He said, ‘Leave me your number,’ and he called not the next day but the day after, and he said, ‘Can you come in now?’” Booth said. “And I said, ‘Yeah, I can come in in a sec,’ and in about two hours I was over here.’”

Her experience selling tobacco at chain convenience stores came in handy: It had been a while, but Booth still remembered the basics and helped the Lees stock their fledgling smoke shop with the necessities.

When she received her first check, it was like a weight off her shoulders. Her family’s budget was no longer so suffocating; there was finally room to breath. She took a girlfriend downtown for lunch at Fat Ptarmigan to celebrate.

The biggest celebration will come at Christmas. Booth said the $10-an-hour smoke shop job makes all the difference.

“Last year, Christmas was pathetic,” she said. “Christmas was bad.”

An old medical bill had resurfaced and taken a chunk out of the family’s annual PFD checks that year, and Booth said there wasn’t much left for anything else. This year, she has a job.

Plenty of other people across the state don’t.

The state’s unemployment rate has grown steadily since the beginning of the year, reaching its highest point in more than two years in August and then plateauing throughout September and October, according to the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development. As of October, nearly 22,000 people around Alaska were unemployed, according to the state’s labor department.

Given Alaska’s large seasonal industries, like fishing and tourism, the department predicts the unemployment rate will only go up from here.

“Now that the unadjusted rate has turned the corner from summer, historical patterns suggest [unemployment] will continue to climb for the rest of the year,” the labor department said in a November statement from the office of the commissioner.

While the national unemployment rate continues to drop, Alaska’s is traveling in the opposite direction.

“With the national rate now a whole percentage point below Alaska’s, the difference is getting closer to normal pre-recession levels,” the labor department wrote. “In the five years before the U.S. rate spiked above Alaska’s, the national rate averaged 1.6 percentage points below Alaska’s.”

Meanwhile, a wave of new retailers and restaurants in Mountain View are fighting that statistic and putting people to work. They bring overall economic development and — in a neighborhood where more than one in five people live beneath the poverty level, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau – they make it a better place to live.

Booth, who moved into a mobile home on Mountain View Drive this past February, said it was housing that initially drew her to the neighborhood.

“I was just driving by with my girlfriend, and I was looking for a place … try and find a three-bedroom for $1,000,” she said. “I found one.”

Mountain View is one of the three most affordable neighborhoods in Anchorage, surpassed only by Spenard and Government Hill, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau and the state labor department.

Booth has lived in a lot of places since she first came to Anchorage more than 20 years ago: Muldoon, Turnagain and Midtown, which was “so much worse” than anywhere else. She moved her family out of their last apartment building when the drug activity and gunfire became too much.

After Booth put down stakes in Mountain View, the fact that her new home was located right across the street from a locally owned business looking for employees was just the icing on the cake.

In some ways, Booth said, working at Smoke Signals is similar to working at a Tesoro or a Holiday. In other ways, it’s very different.

Standing behind the cash register, she can see her house down the street through the bars on the front windows. She can keep an eye on her son when he takes out the dogs, and her daughter can walk across the road and do her homework at the shop in the afternoons when Booth works.

She feels a little safer that way.

“That’s another thing, working over here – my family can come over here and check on me all the time,” Booth said.

While working close to home has its perks, she said, the biggest perk of the job is the paycheck.

When her teenage daughter celebrates her birthday this year, there will be money to buy what she’s really hoping for.

“She’s a reader – she loves Barnes and Noble,” Booth said. “I think I should own some stock now, something like that at least. I spend enough there; that’s where the majority of any money that I do get goes, is to them.”

She said she wouldn’t change it for the world.

Tucked away in their brown one-story home are about 14 large plastic storage tubs filled with old books, Booth said; pages her daughter read and refused to part with. In years past, when times were tight, they’d haul a tub or two down to the used-book store and exchange them for something else.

But it would be nice to have something new for her daughter’s fifteenth birthday. It would be nice to have some distinction between her birthday and Christmas this year.

“When she was young I used to think, ‘This isn’t as hard as everybody says it is,’ you know, having her birthday the next day,’” Booth said. “It is, when they get older. When they get older, it’s very different.”

The paycheck from Smoke Signals will help change that this year. For Booth, working at one of Mountain View’s newest small businesses provides some of the means to take care of her growing children the way she wants to. She was so proud the day her daughter took home an academic citation signed by President Obama himself; the smoke shop job will help her continue to treat her teenager’s insatiable love for new books and learning.

Things were looking much brighter this holiday season, Booth said.

She said she was thankful for the work, the friendly and understanding employers, the affordable home across the street and – most of all — her community of more than 20 years.

“Moving here – it was like a blessing moving here,” she said.

Smoke Shop2

This story is part of an eight-part series sponsored by the Anchorage Community Land Trust. Click here for more information.


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