This week we hear from Abby Tofte who recently opened the Big Lake, a store in Grand Marais selling “approachable” regional art — screenprints, cards, pottery, prints and more. Abby tells the origin story of the Big Lake and how her shop fits in with the mix of other shops in Grand Marais.
AT: The Big Lake is an approachable art gallery and gift shop with products that reflect the unique culture, lifestyle and beauty of the North Shore or Lake Superior. We carry regional and locally made jewelry, pottery, paintings, prints, cards, books and more, all within an affordable price range.
My husband Sam Hedstrom, myself and Chelsea Pusc (owner of the Gunflint Mercantile) purchased our building at 12 First Avenue West in May of 2017. We welcomed our second child, a little boy named Aren in August of 2017, and knowing that, we decided that the summer of 2017 was not the BEST time to open a shop in our tourist town. August of course is the busiest month of the year! So, we launched The Big Lake website/online store in July of 2017. And just a few months ago, we opened our brick and mortar doors in May of 2018.
I grew up down the shore in Silver Bay (my husband Sam grew up here in Grand Marais). I went to college in St. Paul at Macalester where I majored in Geography and Middle Eastern Studies, which led me to work in Washington, DC following my graduation. After just over a year working in DC, I moved back for what I thought would just be a summer up the shore to make a little extra money before heading out East again (I graduated college in 2009, “oh heeeey recession!”). However, I quickly realized that I REALLY missed the beauty and community feel of Northern Minnesota. I also met my husband that summer (who had also come “home” for the summer to make money in the tourist season, then head back to Colorado) and decided, this guy is super wonderful, I think I choose him for forever. 🙂
Since moving to Grand Marais in the summer of 2010, I have worked in customer service all 8 of those years. I have waitressed at The Angry Trout. Bluefin Grille & Gunflint Tavern, I’ve worked for The Cook County Whole Foods Coop, sales staff and management at Siverston Gallery, deckhand and soda pop slinger on a Lake Superior sailboat, administrative help at The North House Folk School & The Grand Marais Art Colony, and a brief winter housekeeping at Bearskin Lodge. Once I finally let go of the fantasy of using my degree in Grand Marais, I realized just how much I loved working in the retail/customer service world, and especially loved buying for stores and the marketing aspect of a few of my jobs.
My husband Sam and I have always wanted to work for ourselves, to run our own businesses. So when the opportunity to purchase a building in downtown Grand Marais with Chelsea arrived in 2017, we realized that this was our chance! We knew there was an untapped market here in Cook County, folks looking for affordable gifts and art that focused on the North Shore and that were also handmade or directly connected to the artist.
Our goal was to create a gallery space where average folks do not feel intimidated upon entry, where everyone is free to ask questions and encouraged to find out more about whatever art is speaking to them in our shop. We want folks to feel confident in choosing multiple pieces of artwork to complete a room or purchase handmade items that represent what the North Shore means to them, all while knowing that their experience is not going to break the bank!
Is the market in Grand Marais competitive or complementary between shops and galleries?
Kristofer Bowman, the owner of UpstateMN just down the street, opened his doors in 2016 with the mantra “We all do better when we all do better” a quote from Paul Wellstone. I truly believe that the Downtown Businesses of Grand Marais feel this way. More strong, defined and inviting shops (especially those open year round) will only help strengthen our pull as a unique and lovely destination shopping experience. I can’t tell you how many folks have commented these past few months about how much fun they are having shopping in Grand Marais. It really is a blast to shop our downtown!
How does your location affect the challenges and rewards of running a store?
OH MY WORD, I LOVE CONNECTING STELLAR ARTISTS WITH AWESOME CUSTOMERS!!!!!!! I LOVE MY JOB!!!!! I take so much pride and honor in my role of helping artists make a living doing what they love and are meant to do, but showcasing their work, telling their stories and promoting their excellence here at The Big Lake. It gives me such a rush to do my work.
As for challenges, I have ZERO complaints at the moment. I think you should probably ask me after our first slow season…. in March I may have a different story.
We opened our shop for many reasons but one of the most important reasons was to guarantee flexibility for our young family. Our daughter Freja will be 3 in October, Aren turns 1 this month. We made sure right from the beginning that we would always have two days off from the shop each week. We also made sure that even right before we opened, neither of us would pull “all nighters,” I make it home for dinner every night. Having young kids requires a forced work-life balance that has thus far served us very, very well.
Where can people follow the store?
Here is a cool video that Cascade Vacation rentals shot of the shop (over 1.7K views!)
Here is an interview with our local radio station
Any upcoming special projects or exhibits you are planning?
YES! Local potter Hannah Palma will be our Guest Artist for Art Along the Lake Fall Studio Tour September 28-October 7. She will be throwing bowls IN the gallery throughout the event! She will also have many, many more of her beautiful work available throughout this time. (Full schedule here)
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