Generations of Alaska businesswomen build 50 years of success for Petersburg outdoor clothing shop

Roxy Lee (center) poses with her daughters Heidi Lee (left) and Cynthia Mathisen. (Photo by Angela Denning/KFSK)

An outdoor clothing and gear store in Petersburg is celebrating its 50th year in business this week. Lee’s Clothing is a family affair that includes generations of businesswomen who can’t imagine doing anything else.

Roxy Lee is checking out the racks of new arrivals at the store; some pastel winter coats for toddlers.

“Isn’t this beautiful,” she said, looking at a pale blue one.

Roxy is the Matriarch of Lee’s Clothing. You’d never know she’s almost 90. Today, she’s dressed in a royal blue hooded sweatshirt. You can often see her driving herself around town. And she still likes to talk business with her daughters who run the store these days, Cynthia Mathisen and Heidi Lee. 

Retail didn’t start with Roxy, though. Business runs in her family back in Minnesota.

“All the way back in my family on both sides,” Roxy said. “My mother was a sales person, my father was a sales person, my grandfather. [It’s] just a natural thing for me.”

It was her aunt who first brought Roxy to Petersburg to work in her women’s fashion store. Lillian Swanson had moved to Petersburg in the ’40s to work in retail and later opened up her own store called The Lillian Shop. Roxy then traveled to Alaska to help her aunt in the summertime when she was on break from college. Roxy also had an uncle in town — Carl Swanson, known as “Swanie” — who came here to manage a general store.

In 1951, Roxy decided to stay. Petersburg was a bustling town back then with a few thousand people. She eventually married and had kids but she kept her hands in business as the ordering agent for a salesman, Leonard Hopkins, who traveled most of the state.

“He would send me his orders on little scratch pads no matter where he was traveling — Anchorage, Fairbanks, Nome — and then I would write up all the orders on the official blank for the company,” Roxy said.

There were 25 different companies. Roxy did that work for 12 years while raising a family. She says she learned a lot about what sold in Alaska.

“Fishing gear and fishing clothing and fishing caps,” she said. “The white bow ski cap that’s famous in Alaska and heavy jackets. So, I got an idea.”

That idea led to opening her own store, Lee’s Clothing, featuring outdoor, casual brands, especially for young men.

“There was a need for teen kind of clothing, young men’s clothing, and nice clothing for men,” Roxy said. “Not fancy, you know, I wasn’t looking for suits.”

Back then Petersburg was mostly run by women while the men were away fishing. But that didn’t mean that they could make all necessary decisions. Roxy says they were faced with all kinds of challenges.

“In order for me to get the loan to start our store, I couldn’t do it on my own as a woman but if my husband would sign the paper I could get it,” she said. “So, this was 1969.”

Fast forward decades and now her two daughters are running the store. They have different kinds of challenges these days, like the onslaught of online sales.

“That competition is hard for us but that’s why we try to provide a good selection and great service,” said Cynthia Mathisen, “We’ll measure those little kids feet and make sure they have proper fitting shoes.”

Cynthia says they keep their doors open because they love the job. They mainly focus on local sales but also serve the town’s tourist population. Besides selling retail, the store distributes tickets for local nonprofit events.

Being people persons also runs in the family.

“You never know who’s going to walk in the door and it’s exciting. It’s a great way to meet people and we know what’s going on,” Cynthia said. “We’re always the center of ticket sales and Beat the Odds registration and race sign ups and all that kind of stuff so it’s a very active life that we have here at the store. It’s beyond retail.”

Her sister Heidi agrees.

“You just never know the life that’s going to happen here. That’s what I love about it,” she said. “You know, whoever’s going to come in the door and new friends that we meet. We love seeing the life of this town.”

Roxy says interacting with people and learning from them is an important part of the business.

“You have to put yourself out there,” she said. “You don’t hold back if you’re interested in people. That always has intrigued me.”

Lee’s Clothing is celebrating its 50th anniversary with sales throughout the week and weekend. There will be a gathering for the public and former employees of Lee’s Clothing at the store on Friday at 4:30 p.m. in downtown Petersburg.