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Alaska's most intriguing bar

Patti Epler

Lewis Lapham, the former editor of Harper's Magazine, visited the Alaska capital in 1970 for a story about the state's oil bonanza and how this frontier (read: backwards) state was going to spend all that cash.

For his piece, "Alaska: Politicians and Natives, Money and Oil," Lapham spent quality time in the bar at Juneau's Baranof Hotel, then as now the premier gathering spot for lawmakers and lobbyists engaged in the affairs of the state. Built in 1939, the nine-story concrete building welcomes a crowd similar to the one Lapham encountered more than 30 years ago.  

Kicked back in the dark leather booths, there's still no better place to swap tales from the Bush, or eavesdrop on the latest political intrigue. Upstairs is the infamous Room 604, where an FBI stakeout recorded oil lobbyists bribing lawmakers in exchange for their votes on oil taxes.

The bar at the Baranof is now called the Bubble Room, a name the cosmopolitan editor of the venerable magazine would no doubt find even more laughable in a place he described as a "shambling, wooden town."

"Like the men, the women wear their hair short," Lapham wrote. "Generally their faces are heavy and square, like the faces of women in bowling alleys."

Bowling alleys? Lapham would have to eat those words today, preferably along with a world-famous Bubble Room burger. From January through April, the Baranof bar is often jammed with women in expensive business suits and the latest Manolos, which they've probably purchased at what's arguably the state's best shoe store, Shoe Fly, just down Franklin Street. They probably haven't seen the inside of a bowling alley since junior high. These days, the state's highest paid lobbyist --not to mention Sarah Palin, the state’s most famous politician -- is a woman.

That good ol' boys feel that Lapham found so Alaskan still remains. While Scotch and Stellas are served by the stoic bartender Sam, the talk is, as ever, about oil money. In 2011 they ponder whether oil companies need a $2 billion a year tax cut, which would still leave the state some $7 billion a year to spend. And that's besides the $12 billion in state savings accounts. And don’t even think about the $40 billion in the Permanent Fund.

Must be why women can afford better hair cuts and cute shoes these days.

Contact Patti Epler at patti(at)alaskadispatch.com.