The doors of one of the oldest family-owned stores in Sitka closed last month. Brenner’s Fine Clothing & Gifts has been a staple on Lincoln Street for the past 65 years, and after nearly 50 years of management, owner Bonnie Brenner decided to retire.
KCAW sat down with Bonnie and her assistant manager, Stephanie Brenner, during the store’s last few weeks, to talk about what’s ahead, both as business partners and as a mother-daughter duo.
Walking into Brenner’s awakens all the senses. A little bell rings when you open the door. Painted rain boots and cozy sweaters adorn the wall. The front tables display soap satchels and fine scented pillar candles. Brenner’s is the place you go when you want a little something special for your friend, or for yourself.
“This is a destination store,” said owner and manager Bonnie Brenner. “I know a lot of people that, if they come to Sitka, they’re coming to Brenner’s.”
Brenner’s Fine Clothing & Gifts officially closed its doors to shoppers on March 30th. The store relocated to Sitka from Nome in 1949, where it was known as “Vi’s Apparel.” Bonnie Brenner began working there after school, and loved the store so much, she negotiated the sale with the owners – Duke and Vi Mitrovich – in 1962 or 1963, at the tender age of 19.
“[Duke and Vi] were getting ready to retire and I just said, ‘What are you going to do with it?’ I wanted to buy it,” said Bonnie Brenner. “I didn’t have any money! And my mom worked for a doctor. She’d never done retail.”
But the family bought it and renamed it Brenner’s, moving the store three times into gradually larger spaces. For Bonnie, the teenager entrepreneur, the appeal was not only the clothes, but the opportunity to hand pick items at markets outside of Sitka.
“I found out that when I went to college that you could go to market and travel. And that’s the part that I liked,” said Bonnie Brenner. “I found out that I could leave this island and hop on a plane. Otherwise, I would have never left.”
Stephanie Brenner, Bonnie’s daughter, started working at the store when she was just ten, dusting racks, cutting tissues, and fashioning bows on an old fashioned machine. She remembers watching her mother and grandmother work
“They just were always women that worked,” said Stephanie Brenner. “It always seemed kind of glamorous to me because I can remember when my mom and grandma would travel to New York City and I thought, ‘Oh, they’re going to New York City!’ They’d always bring back something really – not extravagant – but something unusual you wouldn’t have in Sitka, Alaska.”
With time, Stephanie became assistant manager and got bit by the same travel bug. Pretty soon, Bonnie and Stephanie were making yearly trips to markets and gift shows around the country – to Atlanta, Dallas, Los Angeles and many times to Seattle. The pair have come back with plenty of stories. Some they couldn’t tell on the radio, and others…
SB: We met Richard Simmons and that was absolutely hysterical. He was hilarious.
KCAW: Wait, how does one even meet Richard Simmons?
SB: He was at the Atlanta Gift Mart. I even think my mom had her picture taken with him.
Stephanie said that these little trips, which they sometimes called “research and development,” were a valuable way to keep the merchandise fresh. As the decades passed, the racks at Brenner’s would follow the ebb and flow of women’s fashion. Stephanie reminisced on the era of tuxedo blouses and some trends that have made a comeback.
One current trend Stephanie Brenner remembered from the past was, “Racks and racks of floral leggings and they would sell, as well as stirrup pants. You know, fashion evolves, but it’s sometimes reminiscent of maybe the 70s or the 80s.”
Though fashions have recycled, Bonnie said that the meteoric rise of online shopping has changed the buying habits of customers.
“People need to know with the internet buying that the tax dollars leaves Sitka,” said Bonnie Brenner.
The Brenner women spoke of other economic changes that have affected the challenged the store, including the cost of utilities and the decreased number of cruise ships. Bonnie has been shrinking her inventory for the past two years, in preparation to retire and this year, the timing was good.
“I’ve done this for 50 years,” said Bonnie Brenner. “I will miss being downtown with my customers. I’m just overwhelmed with the comments I have received on how much they have loved our store. I have put my whole heart into it. It’s also a time – I’m excited. There’s going to be new changes in the store and it’s still going to be a wonderful store.”
Particularly exciting is Brenner’s Fine Clothing & Gifts in Hoonah, which Stephanie and her husband will operate this May through September. Stephanie said if she’s learned anything from her mom over the years, it’s to not be afraid of change.
“One thing that my mom has always said is that you’re never too old to stop learning,” said Stephanie. “I think that makes you better business people by being open to new ideas and trying new things. But I learned that from my mom.”
Among those new beginnings? The chance for Bonnie to return to her first love…
SB: And my mom is going to live the high life. (Laughs)
And the first destination? Somewhere in Europe or the fall leaves in New England.
Silver Basin, a home decor and cooking store, will move into the Brenner’s location in Sitka sometime next month.