Can a man fall in love with 50 Japanese tea sets? Or a fleet of velvet owl paintings? Or 150 porcelain vases, with their voluptuous silhouettes, hand-painted with dragons and cherry blossoms and blushing damsels of the Orient?
Art Wallace did.
Over the more than 45 years he owned Fuji Gifts on the Old Glenn Highway, what began as shopkeeping evolved into a kind of collecting some might call obsessive. Years passed. The new Glenn was built, shunting off traffic. Wallace's hours grew erratic. His beard grew white. The accumulation kept on.
At his prime, Wallace was an icon on a sleepy section of highway, cigar between his lips, chief of the local volunteer fire department and lead curator of a museum dedicated to his particular tastes.
Mainly it was treasures from Asia. Chickens painted on bamboo, cases of pottery, samurai dolls, a brass rickshaw. There was also a sprinkling of Americana. A 350-pound iron eagle lifted from a Case Tractor store in Washington. A wooden cigar shop Indian. Coffee mugs by the hundred.
Garish windsocks spun on the eves and wind chimes hung from the ceilings. Regulars passed the time around a kitchen table wedged among the curios. A generation of children visited the famous back room where shelves held carved birds of every species and water trickled down a rock fountain into a pond filled with koi.
When Wallace died in 2010, he was 79. His little shop, a warren of added-on rooms built from wood paneling and cement bricks, was packed to the attic with his wares, carefully wrapped and labeled. He left instructions that the items should be sold to benefit wounded soldiers. And so the sorting-out must begin.
Family tried to tackle it for a few years. Now the project has been taken over by a two-woman auction company called Alaska Auction Queens. So far, they said Wednesday, they've unpacked 300 boxes. They estimate there are 700 to 900 to go.
More than one writer has made the trip to Wallace's shop, exiting the highway at North Eagle River, taking a left on the Old Glenn, passing the yards full of rusty cars and the charismatic Christian churches. The directions I got didn't come with an address. Go to where you can see a fading ship, marked "Cachon," parked up in the woods. Take a right. If you get to the old Moose Horn service station, you've gone too far.
To every visiting writer, Wallace told the same set of stories, sometimes with more detail, sometimes with less. He grew up in New York and expected to make his fortune in chickens. (He had a degree in poultry husbandry from Cornell.) He ended up in the Marine Corps. A sense of adventure took him and his brother Mike to Alaska in the mid-'50s. He did a turn mining for gold. Then came statehood.
In the early '60s Wallace visited Japan, where he fell for a local woman, Keiko Watanabe. They were married in 1964. During their honeymoon, pictures of Alaska appeared on the Japanese news. It was the great quake of '64. The couple made a hasty return to Anchorage. Soon they opened a small trinket shop.
Keiko lasted only a few years here. Her health failed. The marriage crumbled. She went back to Japan. Wallace settled into his lifelong occupation, collecting exotic Eastern prizes and bringing them home.
He told a reporter that he built the room with the fountain as a shrine for Keiko. He said to another writer that they exchanged letters. While cleaning out a Japanese bridal chest in the shop, Donna Henegar, one half of the Auction Queens, came across Keiko's X-ray film tucked in a drawer. It showed her ribs and lungs and heart. It was dated 1968.
I visited the shop on Wednesday as Henegar and her partner Jessica Jansen worked among the boxes.
At one time, Fuji Gifts was a very successful business, they said. Old ledger books put sales at $8,000 a month. The women were surprised at how much of the inventory, by the end, Wallace wanted to hold on to. On some things, he wrote "NFS" on little paper tags. On others, he made the purchasing difficult.
"He had what we call -- industry term -- 'crazy prices,' " Jansen said.
A pottery platter, for example, was marked 20 years ago at $1,000.
She led me to one of Wallace's typical treasure boxes, one filled with discontinued Japanese stoneware from 1983. Notes, written in marker on the box, read: "Don't drop me." "Handle like a newborn baby." "Fragile as hell." The pieces inside had been wrapped and nested in packing peanuts.
Wallace went through phases, they said, buying trinkets from Mexico, Thailand or India.
"In the '80s, he lost his taste or more cheesy stuff started coming out," Henegar said, leading me into a room where the shelves held '80s-style travel mugs, an army of soap dispensers and one large case of goose-shaped napkin rings.
Pretty soon Wallace's younger brother Til came though the door, leaning on a cane. Til is 79. He had on a trucker's cap and a cardigan, a cellphone weighing down one pocket. He had just had surgery on his feet due to complications from diabetes, he explained. He settled himself at the kitchen table.
Til worked in the shop after his brother died, he told me. Art had always been a businessman. He'd sold all manner of things over the years. Lemonade. Popcorn. Bait. He once raised 3,000 chickens. Fuji Gifts was his masterpiece.
"I was so amazed at what Art had in here," he said. "I'm still finding things I've never seen before."
He shuffled into the next room and came back with something small in his fist. He opened his palm and showed me a clay figurine.
"Here's a silly thing. It's a bird. It could be a chicken or something. He was a big man and to see him monkeying with something like this ..."
Til trailed off. He cupped his hand around he bird the way you would if it were alive and you wanted to protect it. Things take on so much meaning over time, he said.
"The longer you're in here," he said. "The more attached you get."
• Art Wallace's Fuji Gifts collection is prepared for auction and sale in a photo gallery by ADN photographer Marc Lester.