Party Palace

It was Lori Baker’s response to one of our Store Room questions that piqued my interest. She said that even if someone had told her owning a party store would be long hours, constantly re-arranging holiday displays — along with everyday items — dealing with the nightmare of finding and keeping caring and dedicated workers and all the issues that go along with having staff, she still would have opened Party Palace in Fairbanks, Alaska.

“It was my passion, my heart’s desire and no doubt what I was meant to do,” Baker said. “There wasn’t anything you could have told me that would have made me change my mind.”

And those in Fairbanks are glad she didn’t.

Before opening Party Palace in June of 1998, Baker had managed a small party store for six years, with some of her favorite memories being “costumed balloon deliveries in the super chicken and pink gorilla costume.” After the party store was sold, she moved on to work in an orthodontic office, where her favorite part of the job was decorating the door for Christmas — a contest they won year after year.

“My husband Terry encouraged me from the first time he met me to open my own store, but I wanted a house before a store,” Baker said. “So after 10 years at the orthodontic office, I decided it was time to pursue my dream to own a party store. Fairbanks needed a one-stop party shop.”

Twelve years later, things are still going strong.

Sovereign Sales
The Bakers chose a location and stayed there for nearly nine years before purchasing land and designing their own building. Because they wanted it to be unique and kid friendly, the front of the store looks like a palace — a Party Palace.

The 7,200-square-foot building has a double garage and stock rooms both upstairs and down, and the store itself has 17-foot high bright yellow ceilings, red floors and blue shelving. And while luau and solid products hold their own, the kid’s birthday theme aisle is No. 1— literally — in that it’s the first aisle of the store and is the most popular, requiring frequent restocking.

“The kids’ theme aisle is set up so the product is at kid level,” Baker explained. “Most parents let the kids pick whatever they want, and it’s nice to see the kids choosing their favorite theme for their party.”

In addition to matching pinatas, all of the party favors are conveniently located directly across from the themes. They also have a large costume room on the main floor with four dressing rooms, as well as a custom balloon station located near the front doors. They have a large rental department, with all costumes modeled in books with their prices, sizes and a breakdown of what’s included.

“Rentals are pretty steady with peaks during holidays,” Baker said. “Several of our customers have modeled our costumes, so often we’ll have people looking at the books comment that they recognize their friends.

“But the balloon area is where we spend most of our time, creating balloon bouquets and balloon art,” Baker added. “Anything you want — from ballerinas to turkeys — we can make out of balloons. If we don’t know how, we’ll go home, dream about it and make it the next day. We love a challenge.”

Alaskan Challenges
Although every town is unique, running a party store in Alaska brings its own unique challenges — the obvious being the weather and shipping. While Fairbanks used to be two to three years behind the lower 48 states in terms of product trends, it has since caught up and now whatever is hot in the other states is usually hot there.

“Terry is in charge of ordering, so he is very aware of what to add and what to avoid,” Baker said. “Some product can’t be shipped during the winter and some we have to pay extra on to keep from freezing, such as hairspray and Silly String.”

But the weather never takes away from the fun, as the store has magicians and professional clowns that entertain and perform at birthday parties, along with a variety of costumed characters who sing, dance and pose for pictures at a variety of events. They gear the magic toward the age group of the audience, and Baker said that performing magic at birthday parties has to be one of her favorite parts of the job.

“Within three months, most people can be trained to be a clown,” she explained. “We have a separate clown manual and the employee gets to go watch each existing clown’s show, developing their own clown show to fit their personality. We try to have each show fit the individuality of the performer, so they also get to choose their own clown name, costume and what magic they’d like to use in their show.”

Finding good employees is the hardest part of any business, but in Fairbanks, this is especially difficult. They have a lot of people there only for the summer, so they experience a lot of transient workers.

Baker doesn’t find a lot of stability in the people applying — three months here, five months there — and having anyone apply who has kept a job for more than a year is rare, so it’s hard to find and keep great help. Her motto is quality instead of quantity, and she’s constantly trying to recruit.

“Several years ago Terry came up with a fabulous idea regarding new hires,” Baker said. “We hire them at 'X' dollars and in 30 days, they take a test. All of the answers are provided for them to study from the first day of hire. If they get a certain percentage of the test correct, they will receive a substantial raise. This shows how motivated the employee is, and it’s a great opportunity that a lot of people never take advantage of.”

But what she does take advantage of is the fact that she can be a bit obsessive — in a good way — knowing Party Palace will always be clean, tidy and organized.

“We sleep better at night knowing we gave 100 percent for our customers to enjoy a clean, organized, well stocked store,” Baker added. “We take pride in our job, our quality of work, our beautiful building and being able to share great memories with so many people.

“There will always be 'bumps in the road,’” she continued, “but as long as you learn from them, you can make the most of it. There’s nothing like making a living doing something you love.”

Originally posted Tuesday, May. 4, 2010