Of course, there’s Mall of America, as much a must-see attraction as a shopping destination. But in Minnesota, shopping is as much about small-town Main Streets as it is megamalls. Places like Crosby, Walker, Red Wing and Grand Marais offer much to purchase, delivered with plenty of personality.
Digging for treasures is a tradition in Minnesota’s Cuyuna Iron Range. First it was miners, who unearthed iron ore. The craters they left behind eventually filled with water, forming lakes that now draw fishermen who cast for great catches.
In downtown Crosby, a different sort of fishing expedition is underway, as shoppers snag antiques at some half-dozen stores downtown.
Antiques shopping has been a tradition in the town of just under 3,000 since the 1980s, when a local who collected antiques realized that downtown’s numerous vacant storefronts would make great antique stores. She opened one, and other dealers soon followed. In 1998, then-Gov. Arne Carlson declared Crosby the Antiques Capital of the Lakes.
In the past few years as interest in antiques waned, some stores closed, but now, as Crosby has become known for mountain biking, downtown has seen an uptick.
Each of the antique stores has its specialties and personality, according to Cathe Picek of the Cuyuna Lakes Chamber of Commerce. The Hallett Antique Emporium, for example, is the largest, with several dozen vendors. Pine Cone Antiques is known for Mission-style furnishings and American art pottery.
With tired and hungry bikers rolling into town, Crosby has also seen a flurry of new eateries. Mixed Company Coffee and the Red Raven Café make good preshopping stops. “The coffee shop has breakfast sandwiches and bakery items as well as large lunches,” said Picek. Like bikers, shoppers benefit from the energy boost provided by the protein drinks Red Raven sells.
At the end of the day, shoppers can drag their glass pitchers, woolen mittens, rocking chairs, vintage aprons, old skis and 1950s suitcases over to the Iron Range Eatery. Picek highly recommends the trendy pizza topped with pear, caramelized onion and gorgonzola. For heartier fare, check out the Crosby Bar and Grill, known for its barbecued ribs.
Mall of America
Shopping at more than 520 stores is the main attraction at Mall of America, of course. Serious shoppers can spend a day — even days — checking out old favorites and investigating new concepts, like Fourpost, an incubator that lets shoppers get a taste of smaller, emerging brands that might be on their way to the big time in retail.
Group tours visiting the megamall can ask for extras, like complimentary VIP shopping packages that include a Mall of America coupon book, souvenir shopping bags and other coupons and discounts. The mall also provides free maps and brochures and can help plan itineraries.
If groups want a break from their store-to-store treks, Mall of America does have some entertaining options. A new walking tour covers the mall’s history and what’s made it such a business success.
Its more than 40 million annual visitors make Mall of America one of the most visited destinations in the nation. The hourlong tour, led by a member of the mall’s leadership team, helps explain why.
Another popular package combines lunch at FireLake Grill House with FlyOver America, a 4D flight simulation that takes “passengers” over some of the country’s best-known and most picturesque landmarks. It takes about 90 minutes for lunch and the ride.
If a group has less time, it might want to venture behind the scenes at Sea Life Minnesota Aquarium, in the mall. During a 45-minute tour, groups troop up to the deck above the aquarium’s tunnel and come within inches of sharks, sea turtles and other sea life. Then, they head to the lab to learn about water treatment and on to the food prep kitchen to hear about what the aquarium’s many fish might be having for dinner.
Downtown Grand Marais
How about a slice of scenery with your shopping expedition? Head up to Grand Marais, a small village of around 1,300 next to Lake Superior.
Downtown’s shops are a fun and, at times, funky bunch. For strange architecture — to match its strange name — the Beaver House wins. The giant walleye flying out from its roof hints at what’s sold inside.
In terms of size, the Lake Superior Trading Post is probably second only to Lake Superior in Grand Marais. The enormous log store has everything needed for up north, from warm clothes for all ages and camping gear galore to big cups of coffee. There’s fun stuff too: kids’ toys, jewelry, maybe even a carved wooden Santa for the mantel.
To take home something tasty, visit the Gunflint Mercantile for jars of wild rice and mushroom soup mix, a fudge kabob or some gooseberry spice jam. For a tasteful gift of a different sort, check out the artist-made contemporary jewelry, kitchen tools and other functional pieces at UPstate MN.
Two books stores have loyal followings: Birchbark Books, known for new and used books but also well-selected gift items, and the tiny Drury Lane, a book shop run by an author where books are squeezed into a tiny cottage near the lake.
Grand Marais is home to many artists — it is considered the state’s first artists’ colony — so don’t leave downtown without a stop at a gallery or studio. The Sivertson Gallery exhibits works that focus on the beauty and character of Lake Superior and the people who live around it, created by some 60 regional artists.
It’s easy to see why Budget Travel named Grand Marais the Coolest Town in America in 2015, although part of the title could have been inspired by the winds that whip off the lake and cool even a summer day. Wear layers when you visit, or you might find yourself in line to buy a fleece jacket at the Lake Superior Trading Post.
In Walker’s four-blocks-long downtown, stores snuggle close to one another within view of Leech Lake. Bicyclists whiz in on the 150 miles of bike trails connected to the town. Every storefront is filled, so a short walk yields a lot of shopping.
Merchants also are close-knit. They celebrate one another’s successes and rally when a fellow merchant suffers. Take last January’s fire at the city’s new brewery. Portage Brewing was destroyed, and Lundrigans, a quality clothing store in business since 1937, sustained so much damage from fumes that it was closed for six months as the store was gutted and rebuilt.
“Lundrigans had to destroy all their merchandise, and the building had to go down to studs. Thousands and thousands of irreplaceable antiques that decorated the store were lost,” said Cindy Wannarka, executive director of the Leech Lake Chamber of Commerce.
When Lundrigans reopened in mid-2019, the whole town came out for the occasion. The rebuilt brewery reopened a few months later. Both businesses and a gift shop that was also damaged by fumes were on Fifth Street, so at Christmastime, Walker celebrated with a Miracle on Fifth Street event.
Those shops are among a host of others in the compact downtown, like Wine Down, where visitors can enjoy wine flights with meats and cheeses; the Artist Mall, where some booths stock works by local artists and others are packed with antiques; Christmas Point Wild Rice Co., a purveyor of wild rice and other food gifts; and Reed’s Sporting Goods, known for its large inventory of hunting and fishing equipment.
Wannarka said downtown Walker reminds us that shopping can be more of an occasion than a chore.
“We don’t have any of the national chains. All the shops make sure they are not carrying each other’s products, so each store is unique,” she said. “They all still gift-wrap; they give that extra bit of service. You get taken care of, treated like you’re a member of the family.”
Even with the closing of the Red Wing Pottery and Red Wing Stoneware in 2019, there’s still plenty of pottery to be discovered in Red Wing.
Pottery-making was a major industry here beginning in the mid-1800s, powered by the area’s abundant clay. Tons of crocks, jugs, dinnerware, vases and other pottery were produced through the years.
Much of the Red Wing pottery for sale in Red Wing today is at Larry’s Jugs and Antiques, about a block and a half from the Pottery Museum of Red Wing.
Larry fell in love with Red Wing crocks after seeing a basement full of them more than 50 years ago in Rochester. He bought them all, and he’s been buying Red Wing pottery ever since.
“Larry buys entire collections,” said his wife, Pauline, who does not collect but does help Larry with the business. “Kids know that they are supposed to call Larry when their parents need to sell.” As a result, she said, “Larry seems to specialize in working with widows.”
He’s also become an authority on Red Wing pottery. Larry’s written three books, helped start the pottery museum and founded a Red Wing pottery collectors society. He continues to help lead the museum, even giving guided tours at times.
Between the museum, where the gift shop is stocked with vintage pottery, stoneware and dinnerware made in Red Wing; several antiques booths in Pottery Place, a former Red Wing pottery building across the parking lot from the museum; and Larry’s Jugs, groups find plenty of pottery to peruse, said Pauline. At Larry’s Jugs, “we are very heavy on pottery and dinnerware from 1877 to 1967,” she said.
The Petersons are also welcoming and happy to visit with shoppers. “The coffee pot’s always on,” said Pauline. “My husband was a collector first, and so he has a passion for this, and he loves to share his knowledge,” she said. “That is why we are so successful.”