Steve Jaklitsch isn’t even sure if his Back Alley Rock Shop has an address. But it’s definitely worth looking for, especially if you like jade, gold and other gems and minerals.
“I think the address is 507 Fifth Avenue,” he said, correctly. “But it’s really in the alley between Fourth and Fifth avenues on the west side of the street.”
If you’re searching for it, just stop and listen. Jaklitsch plays blues music on his speakers outside the shop.
“There are some signs and I’ve got blues music playing,” said Jaklitsch, who, although he says he doesn’t have a favorite blues musician, is partial to Buddy Guy and Robert Johnson. But whoever he’s playing Jaklitsch said he has only a short time to grab potential customers.
“We do get a lot of traffic, but it’s 100 percent pedestrian traffic,” he said. “There are signs out and the music is playing, but tourists are like cattle and they’ll just follow the butt in front of them, so I’ve got about 10 seconds to get their attention.”
Jaklitsch didn’t get his start in Skagway selling rocks. Decades ago the Long Island, New York native had had enough of the East Coast and began looking for jobs in Alaska. He wrote to about 50 different companies looking for work, with no responses.
“My friend said to me, ‘why don’t you move to Skagway and work for the railroad?’” he said, referring to the White Pass & Yukon Route. “So I drove to Seattle and took the ferry to Skagway. That was 42 years ago. I got a job and worked on the railroad till about 1982, when it closed.”
The railroad re-opened in 1988, but Jaklitsch had moved on to other things, like finding jade. After doing some research, Jaklitsch found out that there was jade in the fault lines of the mountains. Then he had some unbelievable luck.
“I got some maps and I went driving around. The first place I stopped turned out to be the motherlode,” he said. “I took as much jade as I could, then I opened the rock shop. I converted a shed into the rock shop in about 2000.”
Although the shop features jade, Jaklitsch also sells woolly mammoth ivory, gold nuggets and Alaska glacier stone among many other gems and minerals. But you can also find your own gold at the rock shop. Jaklitsch has set up a flume near horse troughs filled with gravel and gold from a friend’s mine in Hunker Creek in the Yukon. It’s there that you can find your own treasure.
“We teach people how to pan for gold,” he said. “It’s the same endeavor that has been going on for a hundred years. The method hasn’t changed. Usually you can find about $15 to $20 of gold, but it’s really about the thrill of discovery.”
Jaklitsch also has a rock collection of his own that he’ll occasionally display at the shop. His personal collection includes some rare keichousaurus dinosaur eggs as well as some invertebrate fossils.
“Petrified wood is probably my favorite stuff,” he said. “I like it just for what it is. It’s beautiful. It’s hundreds of millions of years old, and on some you can see the grain of the tree. If only it could talk. Think of the stories a piece of petrified wood could tell.”
After more than four decades in Skagway, Jaklitsch has never looked back at his East Coast roots. “I used to go fishing there,” he said. “The fishing had more variety. And I liked clamming. But that’s about it. That was a lifetime ago.”
He loves the people in Skagway — “there’s a lot of characters here,” — not to mention the long days in summer. He also likes to go out on his boat and pull fish pots and crab pots when he isn’t building houses in town or running the shop.
Meanwhile, the rock shop keeps him busy after he opens in May, and while he hasn’t had any famous shoppers turn up, he says” “Well, all the customers are pretty much all memorable. Of course, the ones who buy the bigger items are more memorable.”
But there was one customer who was very special. Jaklitsch has a wishing well at the shop into which people toss coins. He built it for his son, Beau, who died in 2006 at age 24 of Cystic Fibrosis, a progressive lung disease that limits the ability to breathe
“I had a gal in here last year, and she noticed I have a wishing well in the back that I had set up for my son,” he said. “Well, this gal came in and asked me about it and I told her about my son who had Cystic Fibrosis and that all the proceeds go to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. She said, ‘I have Cystic Fibrosis’. It kind of broke my heart. She said she was doing pretty good, but I gave her some of the things she was going to buy as kind of a present.”