Walking through the door at Al’s News in downtown Grande Prairie may remind you of a different time.
A newspaper rack sits to your left, roasted nuts are ready, an assortment of tobacco pipes rest in a display case and a friendly smile from a long-time clerk welcomes you.
Jim Goldsack has been working in the store since he was 12. Now 67, he continues the work his father started those many years ago.
“Nothing’s really changed,” said Goldsack, noting the addition of a few items over the years, like a lottery machine, and how at one time the store sold groceries and dry goods.
Al’s News has seen downtown Grande Prairie change; Goldsack remembers when Al’s News’ neighbours included Marshall Wells, Hudson’s Bay and Macleod’s, all of now been gone for years.
“We were the largest newsstand north of Edmonton, that was our claim to fame, and I still think we are. But there are no other newsstands north of Edmonton.”
Where once four newspaper racks were filled with papers from all over the region, province, and nation now sits one. There’s only a few left, with only one being local.
Goldsack remembers the days when people would come to the store and buy their essentials for the day. “They would come in and grab a newspaper, grab their nuts, maybe a pack of smokes and read.
“It’s just no different than somebody saying, ‘well, I can’t read this newspaper unless I have a cup of coffee.’”
Beyond the newsprint and magazines, many people head to Al’s News for unique gifts and items seldomly found elsewhere. Lincoln Logs, Tinkertoys, kaleidoscopes and slide whistles can be found among the hundreds of items.
Souvenirs of Grande Prairie remain hard to find in other stores but Al’s News still carries them.
Goldsack recently purchased the casts for a swan statue that was once used as gifts from city hall to visiting dignitaries.
“I haven’t sold them for about 20 years because there’s nobody making them anymore.” Now that he has the cast, he hopes he can find someone to make them.
Goldsack enjoys it when people call in requesting items they can’t find elsewhere.
He lets out a chuckle, “the harder, the better.”
Although many businesses would turn to online shopping, Goldsack still relies on salespeople and goes to buying shows to get his store’s stock.
“I will still do it the old-fashioned way,” he said. “That’s all I know.
“(I’m) not too interested in new technologies and other stuff out there.”
Still, he said the old-fashioned way pays off, as other stores often refer their customers to Al’s News for items that cannot be found anywhere else.
“My dad always said you can’t provide everything for people, but you can provide service,” said Goldsack.
The oldest building downtown
Al’s News moved into its current location in 1979, recalls Goldsack. Before that, the store was located across the street near the current 92 Beverage Co. Before that, it was at another location on the north side of the street.
Jim’s parents, James and Helen, bought Al’s News from Al Persky in the early 1960s.
It would be their third store, with general stores in Prince George and Red Deer.
The building now occupied by Al’s News has a much older history, housing the Selkirk Trading Company in 1913.
Charles Taws, Grande Prairie Museum curator, said it’s likely the oldest building in downtown Grande Prairie.
“If you look at (historical) pictures of that building it’s alone on a prairie,” said Taws.
He noted the Selkirk Trading Company’s building may have even resulted in the development of where downtown Grande Prairie currently resides.
Taws explained when plans for the city were being done by offices in Edmonton, they didn’t take into account existing trails.
“These trails would have probably been indigenous trails that the settlers started using, and obviously, these trails were where the first buildings would pop up.”
More buildings like the one Al’s News is in began to pop up there while the planners in Edmonton believed the city’s downtown would be on 102 St. (which is why the street is so wide today).
The age of the building is revealed in many ways.
Goldsack was looking at fixing the floor at the back of the store where storage is, but it’s built directly on dirt.
“As winter changes the building kind of floats with the frost,” he said. “That’s why you can see a lot of our doorways are not square; it’ll open in the spring and it can’t shut it in the winter.”
It all adds to the character of the store, he said.
“All these new buildings get glass and chrome and beautiful marble and slate; we still got that same old creaky floor; it even has that old building smell.
“You can’t even buy that.”
He said customers come in and mention how it reminds them of days past.
A hidden history exists on and in the walls, above the magazine rack remains an eavestrough that once filled the store with noise when it rained; renovations have revealed multiple layers of roofs, with old coffee cans and newspapers stuck between them.
An apartment is located on top of the store which may have had more rooms at one point as during renovations, they found walls inside the building that once had windows.
Today Al’s News is the only business downtown with a sign not flush with the building, a rule the heritage business has been exempt from in current bylaws.
The original sign extended out to the curb of the street but the city wanted the business to have a narrower sign. At the age of 14, Goldsack drew the current sign that still hangs above the doorway on 100 Ave.
Goldsack is proud of Al’s News’s history in Grande Prairie and enjoys hearing people come in and comment on their memories of the store.
“It makes you feel good that there’s some history you’re part of.”
Town & Country News reached out to locals to share their stories of Al’s News.
Shalene Fyfe remembers heading to Al’s News weekly with her father, who would pick up the latest Louis L’Amour novel while she got to pick up her favourite Disney magazine.
She remembers the magazine was 35 cents back in the 70s and she still owns them today.
“I let my kids read them (and) they were very gentle with them.”
Kim Webber remembers when her Grandma Eileen worked at the store.
“One evening when grandma was working, a young punk came in with a knife and tried to rob the place.
“He stuck his knife out and demanded money… Grandma said, ‘no!’”
Webber remembers her grandmother as tough and wouldn’t tolerate such nonsense.
“Well, this punk kept at it, getting more frustrated and she continued to tell him ‘no’ until finally she had enough and gave him $20 and a pack of smokes and told him to go get a job.
“He left the store realizing that’s all he would get; robbed the place and got a lecture.”
For others, they remembered it was the place they bought their first pack of cigarettes; others remember rushing down to the store to see Pamela Anderson in Playboy, while others remember the many trips there to find unique gifts.
“As a kid, this is where we Christmas/birthday shopped for years,” said Lenny McFarlane.
He remembers going to the store every Tuesday for the newest magazines.
“I would be way ahead of my friends on the newest muscle car and sled magazines; love this place.”
Al’s News was one of the first stores Tom Pura visited when he moved to Grande Prairie in 1988.
“I have always been a fan of reading newspapers and magazines, and I was so happy to see a place I could get both,” he said.
Pura also noted it’s the same store he got celebratory cigars when his children were born.
Some respondents noted it was the only store they could read about niche interests such as heavy metal or hip-hop.
One online respondent said Al’s News made Christmas a bit more special for years because it was the only store where they could find frankincense and myrrh.
“My home just didn’t feel like Christmas without it.”
Another respondent learned a life lesson at the store.
“When I was 8, I got caught stealing a Revel (bar) … never stole again,” said the respondent, who said they are now 61.
Many memories were shared about heading to Al’s News for different items. Most included leaving with some of the warm nuts.
By Jesse Boily, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Original Published on Jul 27, 2023