NORTH POLE, Alaska >> Santa Claus House operations manager Paul Brown says that the business is almost like an “Alaska house.”
“You know, in Alaska, as you have a new kid, you just add a bedroom to the house?” Brown said during a recent interview with the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. “That’s kind of the story of Santa Claus House. Eventually it will just be this huge giant building with all different rooms coming off it.”
Brown was referring to the 2018 renovation of the North Pole business, which saw its retail space double in size as part of the largest refurbishment the store has seen since the 1970s.
Brown has been working at the Santa Claus House for about 20 years.
“I worked my way up to management,” he said. “I actually married into the family, so I’m kinda stuck now. It’s a family-owned business and I’m part of that family now.”
The business was started in 1952 by Con and Nellie Miller, who arrived in Fairbanks in 1949. Con and Nellie had three kids: Mike, Terry — who passed away — and Mary. Mike Miller and his wife Susan are current majority owners of the business; Brown married one of their two daughters, Carrisa, and the couple currently manage the business.
“Con (Miller) became a tradesman, merchant, fur buyer. A lot of the smaller villages, they didn’t have stores or anything, so he would take inventory from Fairbanks and bring it to the villages,” Brown explained. “He would buy up inventory when he came back to town. There was a general store that was going out of business at the time and he bought up the inventory and one of the items in the inventory was a Santa Claus suit. So, ever the showman, it kind of became a gimmick for him. He would dress up as Santa when he went to the surrounding villages.”
“He really became Santa to a lot of these children,” Brown said.
The Millers decided to build a trading post 13 miles south of Fairbanks and, one day as Con Miller was working, a young passerby called out “Hello, Santa Claus! Are you building a new house?” That was how the business got its name.
“With the development of the Richardson Highway, as well as being surrounded by two military bases, it became more of a visitor-type attraction,” Brown said. “You had a lot of airmen come in who would take photographs of him (Con Miller) as Santa and would send them to friends and family back home. And he had a lot of airmen who asked him to sign postcards ‘from Santa’ so they could send them to their friends and family back home. That was the origin of the ‘Letters from Santa’ that we sell. We’ve really been doing it from day one.”
Due to the popularity of the store’s “Letters from Santa,” Santa Claus House became North Pole’s first post office, and remained the only post office for almost two decades. This is just one of the deep community ties that makes the business such an icon and part of local history. For example, Nellie Miller was a marriage commissioner for the local community, which meant she could legally wed people.
“There are thousands and thousands of couples who got married here at Santa Claus House by Nellie,” Brown said. “Con ran for the first elected mayor of North Pole and served as mayor for years.”
It goes even deeper than this: North Pole was incorporated as a city in 1953, around the exact time that Santa Claus House was founded.
“Con actually hand-delivered the paperwork to incorporate North Pole as a city to Juneau,” Brown said. “So, the story of Santa Claus House is really the story of North Pole — and vice versa.”
In 1972 the state rerouted the Richardson Highway, leaving the business at some distance from the constant influx of traffic. That year, the business moved to its current location on St. Nicholas Lane — and the business kept growing.
“The tripling in size happened in 1974, when we had major expansion,” Brown said. It was a function of being able to handle the increase in traffic with the growth of tourism in Alaska. That was our last major construction project, until this new construction, which has doubled the size of the store.”
The recent renovation was a multi-million dollar project, which saw the retail space in the store swell from 9,000 square feet to 18,000. With Tilly & Company as the contractors, construction took place over eight months through the summer of 2017. On Jan 1, 2018, the store closed its doors and staff completely emptied out the original structure over three days. That portion was then gutted “down to the studs” and remodelled over 90 days. After restocking, the store reopened May 1, 2018.
Brown said this expansion was a necessity for the business, which is experiencing ever more foot-traffic as the Alaska tourism industry booms. The project, however, did meet a little backlash.
“It’s almost a mixed blessing having a business like Santa Claus House, because it’s a landmark. It’s great on the one hand because the general public really takes ownership of it as a landmark,” Brown said. “But you have to be very, very careful what you do. We even had a conversation where we said, ‘OK, do we build a whole new building and tear down the old building?’ There’s such visibility for Santa Claus House. There was such public ownership of the building that we decided we couldn’t tear it down.”
Brown said that he understands this — and it’s a major part of what makes the business what it is. While he hears “mixed reviews,” he said that most of the public like the store’s new look and feel that it retains the charm that defines Santa Claus House.
“As I mentioned, we have such public ownership,” he said, adding that a small minority have said they feel the store is turning into a big box retailer. “But every square inch was full of something. We had so much history of North Pole and it was literally displayed in every corner of the building. It was such a full building that, while it was quaint and had charm and appealed to a lot of people, we knew it was time that we had to open it up and allow for future growth and comfort for people coming in here.”
Growth comes with challenges. Santa Claus House is one of the top three attractions of Interior Alaska and the business is growing beyond its tourism attraction status too. Santa Claus House now has a steady revenue stream throughout the year, although the source of that revenue varies. For years the store would close down during the first quarter of the year — now ‘aurora tourists’ drive traffic during that period. In the fourth quarter, online sales have become a primary revenue driver.
“We almost have an identity crisis in that we’re almost like three different businesses,” Brown said. “We have the spring and summer and winter attraction aspect — primarily in the summer, when we’re getting so much traffic. But in the fourth quarter we transition to more local traffic. It becomes more of a gift shop than a visitor attraction. And we also have this massive element that nobody ever sees — we have a huge mail order business online.”
In the winter, Brown said, Santa Claus House mails products to “almost every country in the world.”
“I can confidently say that we’re doing more business online than any other business in Alaska,” Brown said. “We’re talking tens of thousands of orders that we’re having to fulfill from a small business in North Pole, Alaska.”
While the expansion has provided more storage and backroom space for this side of the business, the new displays are the more visible aspects of the renovation. Brown said that management is highly focused on making Santa Claus House “more than just a store.”
“We are obviously primarily a gift shop and we want to have some attraction elements, which is why we have the world’s largest Santa out front, we have the photo sleigh out front, we have Antler Academy next door. So some of the things we focused on is a unique shopping experience,” Brown said.
The new store has several new large display windows, reminiscent of those on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. They expanded Santa’s meet and greet are inside the store. And by the time this article goes to print, the business will have also unveiled its newest attraction.
“We have a new dedicated space in the store — it’s a sneak-peak into Santa’s workshop,” Brown said.
The display is a highly detailed area near the store’s entrance, where visitors can see Santa’s long list of gifts, a globe that shows Santa which children have been good and which have been naughty, toys that are in the process of being made and various other features of the workshop.
“I wish I had an imaginarium department, like Disney has,” Brown said. “We want to be an attraction — we want you to shop, but we also want to give you an experience.”
Brown said that this is just a stepping stone in the Santa Claus House story. Not only are staff working on more interactive displays, but as traffic continues to increase the store may get even bigger in the future.
“We’re busting at the seams again already,” Brown said. “We had a conversation shortly after we finished construction and opened up and said ‘man we really should have gone bigger.’ Before the last project was even completed, we were having discussions about future expansion.”
Information from: Fairbanks (Alaska) Daily News-Miner, http://www.newsminer.com