U Pop Em has moved from their location in the Dillingham harbor where they have sold fireworks since 1993. In more than two decades of experience, owners Billie Benedict and Paul Peck have learned a lot about how to run a fireworks business in rural Alaska.
For the past 23 years, permanent residents and seasonal workers alike have bought their Fourth of July and New Year’s fireworks from U Pop Em at Dillingham boat harbor. This year, however, will be a little different. The city foreclosed on the property where U Pop Em rented space and gave notice that the firework stand would have to move.
“It took us a long time to find a place to be,” says Billie Benedict, who owns the stand with Paul Peck. “Last fall, when I thought we weren’t going to find a place to be, I was really upset. How can I spend a Fourth of July away from my firework stand?”
As it turns out, that is not a question she will have to answer this year. U Pop Em found a new home by the Dillingham water tower, across from the soccer field.
In nearly a quarter-century of operation, this is hardly the first obstacle U Pop Em has overcome. There was, of course, the normal learning curve that comes with opening a new business. Originally they ran their operation out of a tent that they had to set up and take down every day.
“It was a lot of work. But we learned a lot. We learned a lot about what people like and what they don’t like, about what they spend money on and what they won’t, what women like, what men like, what kids like,” says Benedict.
Then there have been the challenges specific to rural Alaska, transportation chief among them. They count on barges to deliver their product. That means Benedict has to order for the Fourth of July on one of the first barges in the spring and for New Year’s by the last barge in the fall. She also takes into account the copious summertime light when she stocks the shelves.
“Mostly in July they like things that are noisy. I would say our biggest seller is our artillery shells and our rockets in July. Just the opposite is true in New Years. We sell a lot of the night displays,” says Benedict.
On the other hand, when it isn’t light, it’s cold. Benedict says the hours stretch long when she is selling fireworks in subzero temperatures ahead of New Year’s Eve.
“It’s really, really a tough time for us to be open because we’re not allowed to have any kind of heat source in the stand, so it’s just us and the elements, hoping my fingers will work again,” says Benedict.
When Peck and Benedict opened their stand in 1993, she didn’t anticipate that it would become a regular part of her life for decades. The customers keep her coming back.
“I just have a great deal of fun having people come in, meeting with them, and talking with them and seeing what they pick out,” Benedict says. “A lot of them come every year so we know each other and have a relationship. Business, but still a relationship.”
U Pop Em’s opened at their new location Thursday and will be selling the fireworks Dillingham has come to expect every afternoon after 3 p.m. until July 5.
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