Historic Grand Canyon shop to close after 102 years at the rim

By Amanda Lee Myers
Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona (AP) 4-08

At a time when tourists visited the Grand Canyon in stagecoaches, they did their souvenir shopping at a tent set up by a man named John George Verkamp.

It was 1898, before the Grand Canyon was a national park, before there was a National Park Service and before Arizona was even a state. Not many had the means to visit the mile-deep gorge, so it was mostly just a handful of adventurers, prospectors, the American Indians whose people had lived there for centuries, and the Verkamps.

These days, the Grand Canyon has luxury lodges and cute coffee shops. The only thing it won’t have come September is the Verkamps.

The family’s final chapter at the canyon began in 1998, when Congress passed a law that reversed giving preference to established businesses when issuing contracts. A company that had never operated at a given park now could outbid anyone if it had a better proposal – even if the competition had been there for more than a century.

The Verkamps scrambled, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on appraisals, environmental consultants, financial advisers and lawyers – all in an effort to prepare to face off against major corporations that could vie to run the gift shop Verkamp opened in a permanent building on the South Rim in 1906.

When the National Park Service issued the store’s final prospectus last July, the family chose to give in to what they call “bureaucratic process fatigue.”

“There’s just so many hoops to do what you’ve always been doing,” said Susie Verkamp, the 60-year-old granddaughter of John George Verkamp. “It kind of wears you out.”

Susie Verkamp said there also was really no one left in the family to run the shop, which has been managed by someone other than a family member since 1995, although the Verkamps have maintained an active involvement.

Park Service spokesman Jeffrey Olson said the 1998 law shows the public that there is no favoritism in issuing contracts to concessioners.

He acknowledged that not everybody is happy with the law, but said small businesses shouldn’t lose sight of their own advantages.

“If I were a big business going up against somebody who had been in business for generations, I don’t know that I would think I had this thing in the bag,” he said. “Incumbency, when you talk about political circles, has a lot of weight.”

The Park Service turned down three companies that put a bid on taking over the Verkamps’ building, saying the Grand Canyon had plenty of gift shops on the South Rim. The agency compensated the Verkamps more than $3.2 million for the building, park spokeswoman Maureen Oltrogge said.

Park Superintendent Steve Martin said the structure may be used as a visitors’ facility or a Grand Canyon history museum, which does not yet exist.

Martin said the Verkamps’ story “is part of the settlement of the West and the American dream.”

Mike Anderson, a Grand Canyon historian who has written three books about the canyon’s history, described the Verkamps as pioneers and their shop as a mainstay of the canyon community.

“John G. Verkamp was there at the onset trying to make a living off Grand Canyon tourism when it was really still in its infant stage,” Anderson said.

He said Verkamp’s first customers would have primarily been the wealthy who took trains from the East to Williams, where they had to hire a stagecoach to travel the remaining 60 miles to the canyon.

The Grand Canyon Railway, built in 1901, made the trip a bit easier, but it wasn’t until 1930, when the automobile became affordable for the average American, that the middle class started showing up at Verkamp’s in larger numbers, Anderson said.

By 1936, the Depression had taken its toll on Verkamp’s other business interests, so he moved his wife and four children to a two-bedroom apartment above the shop.

The Verkamps’ chocolate brown, two-story store hasn’t changed much in its 102 years. It still sits about 100 feet from the edge of the Grand Canyon and it still sells hand-selected items from local American Indian artists and regional traders.

Woven Navajo rugs hang from the ceiling, deer and buffalo heads eye customers from the rustic, wooden walls and people warm themselves in front of a giant, crackling fire.

Verkamp ran the store until he died of a stroke in 1944 at the age of 67. Two more generations of his family managed the store until 1995, when the Verkamps hired someone outside the family to take over management duties.

Susie Verkamp and her six brothers and sisters also grew up in the apartment upstairs. The brood learned how to swim in a pool near the edge of the Grand Canyon, and played hide-and-seek, red rover, and kick the can in the nearby woods.

Verkamp said people always ask her if she and her family take the Grand Canyon for granted, considering it was their backyard.

“On the contrary,” she said. “We have a certain intimacy with the canyon and love that couldn’t be further from taking it for granted,” Verkamp said from her home in El Prado, N.M., where she’s lived since 1989. “It gives you kind of a unique perspective on life – we always had an understanding that the human species is a very small part of the big picture.”

LeAnn Koler of Cleveland recently fulfilled a lifelong dream to visit the Grand Canyon and stopped by Verkamp’s to do some souvenir shopping.

“It’s kind of sad to see a family-run business go,” Koler said after buying a turquoise ring, silver earrings and a shot glass for her collection. “It’s nice to go to a store that’s not a chain like Wal-Mart. You’d rather give a family your business than a chain.”

On the Net:

Verkamp’s Curios: http://www.verkamps.com/

Grand Canyon National Park: http://www.nps.gov/grca/