Karl Reinhold Carlson was born in 1922 in British Columbia. His family moved to the United States in the 1930s, and Karl first came to Alaska in 1940 when his family moved to Kodiak, where his father helped construct military facilities during the pre-World War II build-up. Karl served in the U.S. Navy during the war but returned to Alaska afterward to study mining at the University of Alaska.
During high school he became an accomplished accordionist and even started his own band, the ABCs, with his brothers Arthur and Bert. His passion for music followed him throughout his life. After World War II, while playing in a band at a USO dance in Fairbanks, he met his future wife, Betty. In the 1950s he put together a band called the Frigid-Aires, which, with a changing membership, entertained Fairbanks audiences for decades.
Although Karl studied mining, his heart was in music, and he opened Music Mart in the late 1940s. According to his oldest daughter, Janine Thibedeau, the business bounced around several locations during its first few years.
In 1947, Carl and Betty rented a house owned by Hjalmar and LaDessa Nordale at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Noble Street. Two years later Karl moved his business, which was still quite small, into the front room of the house, and Music Mart has been there ever since.
The house, shown in the drawing, has been added on to over the years, but the original 1 1/2-story wood-frame structure, 30-foot wide by 52-foot long, was built in about 1908 by Anton (Tony) Nordale, perhaps best-known for building the Nordale Hotel in downtown Fairbanks. Hjalmar was Tony’s son.
Hjalmar died in 1952 and the next year LaDessa sold the house to Karl and Betty.
Karl and Betty raised four children in the Noble Street house. An undated house plan in Fairbanks North Star Borough property records shows the store in the front rooms of the house. The back room, which is now the sheet-music room, is shown as a kitchen/dining room, and the family had bedrooms upstairs.
Betty helped with the business during its early years at the Noble Street location but eventually took employment away from Music Mart to help support the family and her husband’s passion. For a time, Betty worked as a medical transcriptionist at Ladd Air Field, and then became a teacher.
The Carlsons lived at the corner of Noble and Fifth until 1967, when Karl, always a wheeler-dealer, traded an organ for a small house that needed to be moved. Another of Karl’s daughters, Barbara Johnson, told me that with Karl having grown up in a family of builders, moving the structure wasn’t an obstacle. The Carlsons bought a lot on Front Street in Graehl (across the road from what is now Graehl Park) and Karl trucked the house across the Chena River and set up the family’s new home. He later enlarged the structure.
The store expanded into the rest of the Fifth Avenue building, with the second floor eventually housing music classrooms and an instrument repair workshop. Aurora Keyboards, the piano and organ branch of the business (no longer active) moved across Noble Street, finally settling into the old Salvation Army building (now Thai House Restaurant) at 412 Fifth Ave.
Karl’s youngest daughter, Anita Tomsha, who trained as a music instrument repair craftsperson, took over Music Mart in 1985 and has operated it for the past 34 years. The store’s inventory has changed to reflect the times, but, with its distinctive signs and loyal customer base, Music Mart it is still a valued part of the Fairbanks community.
Ray Bonnell is a freelance artist, writer and longtime Fairbanks resident. See more of his artwork at www.pingostudio.us.
• Conversations with Barbara Johnson, Janine Thibedeau and Anita Tomsha, who are the daughters of Karl and Betty Carlson
• Fairbanks North Star Borough property records
• Karl Carlson obituary. In “Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.” 6-13-2008
• “Music Mart keeps music, instruments playing.” Sam Friedman. In “Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.” 12-20-2015