Builders of Nome celebrates 50-year anniversary
By Megan Gannon
When the Nugget reached out to Clark Reddaway for an interview about the 50th anniversary of Builders Industrial Supply, he refused at first: “Any 30 minutes I give you is 30 minutes away from my customers—that’s how we’ve stayed in business for 50 years.”
This turned out to be one of the practical jokes that the Reddaways are known for, just like the “Sorry, we’re open” sign on the door, a joke of his brother Keith Reddaway’s invention. The rubber Halloween masks around the store are a source of amusement and they are not for sale, though Clark said he might be able to part with one if a customer had an especially good pitch to scare or prank someone.
“You don’t keep doing a job for 50 years if you’re not having fun occasionally,” Clark said. “It doesn’t have to always be fun, but it better be fun occasionally.”
Working every day for 14 months during the pandemic? That was also Clark’s idea of something funny.
“I did it because it was my sense of humor,” he said. “I looked at it and I went, huh, I’ve done nine months without a day off. I might as well come in tomorrow.”
He isn’t eager to repeat a stretch like that again, but he regularly works seven days a week. Keith used to do the same but now is more protective of his Sundays off.
The siblings grew up in the shop, which their late father, Bob Reddaway, founded in 1972 after coming to Nome from Washington State in the 1940s. Keith remembers doing his homework on the counter. Clark started working there when he was still a teenager, in 1975. Their mother, Sadie Reddaway, was the sole bookkeeper for many years.
The business has changed over its five decades, moving from its original location at a pink building on Lomen Ave., across from what is now the Crowley office. The store once sold auto parts and lumber before those markets got too saturated. Now focusing on hardware, plumbing, heating, welding, electrical and appliances, Builders is the place to go in Nome for a washer, a wingnut or an obscure watch battery. It’s also the only place in town a customer might find a one-off novelty glass with a bullet lodged in its side. And a major draw of the shop are the brothers themselves.
“What the customers, I think, are getting at Builders is the expertise and knowledge of Clark and Keith, which is invaluable,” said their sister Tracey Buie. “There’s no way to put a price on what that is, and I think that’s just a huge component of what their business is about. And the customers know them.”
The coffee pot at Builders is a gathering place, Keith said, comparing it to a pickle barrel people would stand around at an old general store: “A lot of people come in just to have coffee and see who’s doing what.” Clark is particular about what kind of coffee is served and how. He picks out a French roast or beans from Starbucks and provides extra-large cups, a solution for a Nome-specific problem. “It’s a big cup so you can fill it half full and get in your car and drive on these bumpy roads and not spill it all over yourself,” he said.
Clark himself was carrying a self-stirring coffee cup around the store. He’s developed his own expertise on such devices. In his opinion, the cups with a spinning magnet component at the bottom are best.
“The ones that don’t have ‘magnet’ in the description have a little tiny shaft and a little propeller down there, and sooner or later, that seal or the shaft comes up and kind of starts wearing and leaking and just kills the motor,” he said.
Such detailed knowledge is what sets the Builders shopping experience apart from Amazon or the self-checkout at Home Depot.
“We’re the last of a dying breed,” Clark said.
Besides their regulars in Nome, Builders serves customers in the surrounding villages—and occasionally much further away. Clark recalls when mushers in Montana called to request a pair of gloves they didn’t know where to find anywhere else. The brothers are known to answer calls about heating and plumbing emergencies—which, in Nome, can be critical. They don’t exactly advertise this service, and Clark said he does not readily give out his cellphone number, “but if somebody makes enough phone calls, they’ll find us.”
In the back of the store, Clark keeps an electric typewriter where he writes up each inventory order to scan and then send to suppliers.
“I’m not doing something that hasn’t been done—I’m just doing something that you haven’t seen for a long time,” said Clark, noting that multimillion dollar businesses of the 40s and 50s did everything on paper. He said he’s kept up the practice because he noticed that when he started using a cell phone, suddenly all the numbers he had memorized vanished from his mind. “It forces me at my age to keep the brain active. Seven days a week, I exercise my brain because I have to remember all these items—where they are, what the prices were, and how often they sell.”
The next 50 years of Builders are more uncertain. The siblings said there is no one in the next generation of their family who wants to take over the business. Clark said he plans to work 70 hours a week until he turns 70. That means at least another seven years of contractors, miners, repairmen and homeowners from Nome and beyond all passing through Builders.
“Sooner or later, they all have to deal with me,” Clark said. “They either learn my sense of humor or they don’t.”