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In the beginning: Northern Lights Center

In the beginning: Northern Lights Center

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The Northern Lights Center strip mall is home to many Spenard mainstays. Middle Way Cafe, Title Wave Books and Kaladi Brothers Coffee have been storefront neighbors for some time now. Big name retailers and trendy restaurants, like REI Co-op, Hearth Artisan Pizza and a revolving sushi bar, bring people from the far reaches of the Anchorage bowl to what some say is the heart of Spenard.

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The iconic Northern Lights Center strip mall was developed by former Alaska Governor Wally Hickel in 1960. Anchorage’s first escalator was built inside the Caribou Department store shortly after the strip mall was built. Hickel Investment Co. owned the property until 2006. Now, Mush Inn Corp. and Yoo Jin Management Co. Ltd. are equal owners of the strip mall.

Title Wave Books has been in the mall since 2002. Angela Libal, current owner who has been working at the bookstore for 20 years, said the move to the Spenard mall made quite a splash. Their former location was on Fireweed Lane, behind Chilkoot Charlie’s, in what is now the Pack Rat Antique Mall. Libal said the bookstore went from having to own a 12,000 square foot building to leasing a 35,000 square foot space in the Northern Lights Center.  

“[Governor] Wally Hickel and his wife Ermalee were even frequent customers to the mall,” Libal said. “This new space was an amazing opportunity for us to finally have the chance to do and try many of the things our customers had asked for, like carrying gifts and hosting events. We were able to expand sections in the store, and grow as a company.”

Angela Libal took over Title Wave Books in 2017 after former owners, Julie Drake and Steve Lloyd sold Libal, their employee at the time, the used bookstore. When Libal took over at the beginning of 2017, she knew the rent would be raised at the end of Title Wave’s lease in May of that year.

Libal considered moving the bookstore.

“We explored moving, working with a commercial real estate agent looking at all kinds of spots in Midtown, and even South Anchorage,” Libal said. “Yet Spenard, with all of its quirks and charms remains our home.”

Ultimately, Libal decided to keep Title Wave in its Spenard home.

“We decided on staying put, and re-working our space to better suit our needs for the next 15 years and beyond,” Libal said. “We gave up under-utilized square footage, about 10,000 square feet and still having 24,000 square feet to play with. We reworked the flow.”

Libal has seen the mall and Spenard change over the last 20 years. At one point, the center housed an oriental rug store, a laser tag shop and Marty’s New York Bagel Company. No more Johnson’s Tire Service in the parking lot. Now there’s a Starbucks and a Walgreens. Yak and Yeti moved in. La Bodega and Hearth Artisan Pizza opened their doors. Great Clips and Today’s Nails moved in on the west side and Natural Yogurt Selections opened this fall, Libal said.

“Even in a couple block’s radius, there have been major changes,” she said. “Nearly all for the positive. It feels great to be surrounded by all of the other small, locally-owned shops popping up all around us. Bambino’s, Hoarding Marmot, Dos Manos and The Clothesline Consignment Shop. I’d like to think that having Title Wave Books in the neighborhood is why that’s possible.”

While Title Wave decided to stay, some store owners felt the need for a change of scenery, but not a change in the neighborhood. Grassroots Fair Trade sat by Kaladi Brothers Coffee from October of 2008 to March of 2017. They decided to leave the mall and venture across Northern Lights Boulevard to what co-owner, Liz Dean, describes as a cozy and wonderful new location next to Dos Manos and the Bead Shack.

REI Co-op, one of the center’s main retailers is moving out soon, too. This summer, they announced they will be taking over space in the Midtown Mall that once housed Carr’s grocery store in early 2019.

There has been no confirmation of what will take REI Co-op’s space. Spenard will just have to wait and see.

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