If you’ve traveled the Kenai Peninsula, you’ve passed Wildman’s in Cooper Landing. If you’ve been hungry after a hike, had to use the bathroom on the way to Anchorage or needed a lift from your boat to your car, you may have even stopped in. Perhaps you never make it past mile 47.5 without pulling over for a waffle cone or cup of Kaladi Brothers Coffee.
Love the place enough and it could be yours, for $1.4 million. Owner Cheryle James put the Sterling Highway mainstay on the market two and a half years ago.
“Yeah, I’m getting old," James said. "We kind of decided that we wanted to sell it. It’s getting to be a little harder working as we get older.”
James has received some inquiries since, but nothing’s stuck.
“I always knew it was going to take a while to sell this place. ’Cause it’s gotta be the right person," she said. "And so that right person has just gotta figure out that they’re the right person.”
James ran the store for 23 years with her husband, Jerry James. Now that the pair is separating, James is the sole owner.
They first dreamt up Wildman’s at a 21st birthday party for James’s stepdaughter.
“And we were making drinks and we ran out of rum. So we sent the brand-new 21-year-old to buy a bottle of rum and she came back with a little tiny bottle and no change. And my husband decided then that we could start a liquor store and do it better than anyone else in town. So that’s how it started," she remembered.
That was 1996. Neither had prior retail experience — James had been a banker and her husband was a truck driver. That sure didn’t stop them. They got the liquor store license approved in November the following year and opened on Christmas Eve.
“And got our first beer delivery and sold the first pack to my carpenter, and then we closed," she said.
They were just a liquor store and laundromat then, with some cabins for rent in the back. In the years since, they’ve added snacks, non-alcoholic beverages, ice cream and a deli counter. They sell apparel, have showers and operate a shuttle service for anglers.
When Cooper Landing Grocery closed for some winters so the owners could travel, James added groceries.
The most recent addition is hardware, incorporated when Cooper Landing’s hardware store was bought out.
That’s not to say every addition has worked. They tried adding a tow truck service once, and that was a bust.
“You’ve always got to experiment," James said. "Otherwise, you get kind of stale.”
It’s been a rough pair of summers for Cooper Landing, between the fire and pandemic, which has made finding stable employees difficult. Generally, though, summer is Wildman’s peak.
“When we started this place, we were always going to be here for our locals. Which includes everybody on the peninsula, going through. And clean bathrooms. Two goals," she said. "But we have to make the money in the summer so that you can make it through the winter.”
The store gets a good deal of business, from the town’s few hundred residents but mostly from passing motorists. Still, some impending developments in Cooper Landing are scaring away prospective buyers.
"Oh yeah, we’ve had a couple inquirers. But when they find out about the bypass and Three Bears then it kind of scares them off," James said. "I would be scared, too, if I’m going to try to buy something for a little over a million dollars.”
In an estimated five years, the Cooper Landing bypass will make Wildman’s less of a given for road travelers. Planners say approximately 70 percent of drivers will be diverted to the new section of highway, which will fork from the highway at Mile 45 and rejoin around Mile 56. Wildman’s is at mile 47.5.
James is more worried about Three Bears, the Alaska chain that plans to open a store in Cooper Landing in 2022.
But she said Wildman’s will always have its loyal customers. Like the group of local retired men who congregate at the front of the store each morning over coffee and the paper.
“We call it the DNC club."
What does that stand for?
"Do nothing club," she said, laughing.
The town is full of great people, James said. Since she was a kid making weekend trips down from Anchorage, she’s loved it here and won’t move away, even when she does sell the place.
So, here’s her pitch:
“If you have a family, it’s a great place to raise a family," she said. "And this would give you an income to raise that family. And it’s a wonderful community. Beautiful place to live. That’s why I’m here. That’s why we started the place, so that we’d have an income that we could afford to live here.”
Wildman’s is listed with Mossy Oak Properties.