Free Air Life Co. brings outdoor apparel to Lincoln Park

Free Air Life retail store marketing director Katy Rochel and co-owner Sarah Steinbach stand in front of apparel at the new Lincoln Park shop.

Another new business has opened in a revitalized Duluth building positioned to add more retail shopping to the Lincoln Park Craft District.

Free Air Life Company opened Oct. 9 at 12 N. 20th Ave. W. The shop specializes in outdoor clothing and accessories that focus on comfort and sustainability. The name “Free Air Life” is based on the Norweigan word “friluftsliv,” which is used to describe the health benefits of getting out into nature.

The store features apparel from boutique brands like Hippy Tree, Topo Designs, Carve Designs and Howler Brothers. One such brand, Tentree, pledges to plant 10 trees for every item it sells. Free Air Life ordered 168 Tentree products as part of its initial stock; a sign in the store shows 1,680 trees and counting.

“It’s fun to connect with these brands,” said Steinbach, who owns the shop with her husband, Justin. “They tend to be connected to a mission, like being eco-friendly and raising awareness about environmental issues, or to empower women to experience the outdoors. We want to be part of that, but we also just want to bring some cool stuff to Duluth.”

These images from Free Air Duluth’s Facebook page highlight items available in the shop.

The new store is a bit of a spinoff of a previous retail shop run by the Steinbachs. From October 2016 to this past May they operated the I Lake It store at Miller Hill Mall.

“What we’re doing now is pretty different,” Steinbach noted. “It’s more about apparel than home décor. (I Lake It) had more gifty stuff. It was like a Minnesota pride shop.”

With Free Air Life, the Steinbachs will instead focus on the growing outdoor adventure market in Duluth and the North Shore. Katy Rochel, the store’s marketing director, said the array of apparel and brands will be constantly changing and rotating.

“We’re going to curate it according to what people want,” she said.

The Steinbachs also operate Vista Fleet, which offers passenger cruises on Lake Superior and Duluth’s harbor. They purchased that business in 2012.

Free Air Life is the Steinbachs’ first venture in the Lincoln Park neighborhood. Sarah said she has been impressed with the way entrepreneurs in the neighborhood have developed a craft district and actively collaborate with each other. She said she hopes her shop will add variety to the offerings.

“There’s a lot of food and beer in the craft district,” she said. “We need more shopping.”

Another clothing retailer with a similar mindset opened in July just two doors down from Free Air Duluth. Sarah Herrick-Smisek and Mike Smisek’s DLH Clothing sells apparel designed with their brand’s cursive DLH logo, created to celebrate “the lifestyle and culture of North Shore living through the exploration of a city surrounded by forests, trails, and Lake Superior.”

Jordan Decker, DLH’s “retail renaissance woman,” said there is excitement in the neighborhood around all the new business activity.

“It’s more of a draw when you have a cluster of stores,” she said.

In between Free Air Life and DLH Clothing is Mivikin, a small shop that will feature vintage and handcrafted home and arts goods while doubling as a graphic design studio for its owner, Bree Thompson.

“I’m super excited,” Thompson said. “I love that the businesses in Lincoln Park are becoming more diverse. I popped into Free Air Life and got my husband a Christmas gift already.”

Thompson has been working in the space since May and expects to open her store in January.

“It’ll kind of be a niche vintage shop,” she said. “It’s a tiny space, so I’ll be really thoughtfully curating what goes into the shop.”

The building at 12 N. 20th Ave. W. is home to three new businesses. In the background is the JS Print Group building, which features a mural by Adam Swanson.

The three new businesses fill the ground-level retail spaces in the building. Apartments on the upper floors are undergoing renovations.

Tobbi Stager and Christopher Shubitz bought the building in January for $220,000. The previous owner, Chris Priley, founder and president of Hermantown-based AHL Healthcare Group, acquired the building in 2005 and used it as office and training space for his home health services business. Priley is also co-owner of 27 Liquors, which opened in 2015 at 2700 W. Michigan St.

Priley said the building at 12 N. 20th Ave. W. was vacant when he sold it. “We barely used it in the past three or four years,” he said.

The new building owners also run nearby businesses. Stager bought the neighboring building at 1927 W. Superior St. in 2017, where he operates JS Print Group. Shubitz Plumbing and Heating is one block away at 1925 W. First St.

Stager said much of the work on the second floor apartments is complete. He’s hoping to rent the four units to young professionals. He is also planning upgrades to the exterior of the century-old building.

The structure dates back to 1916 according to a St. Louis County Property Details Report. Newspaper advertisements from 1919 and 1920 indicate the building housed Garden’s Cash Market — “the cleanest in the city.” Proprietor Morris Garden promised “the highest grades of fresh and cured meats at lowest possible prices.”

These three advertisements for Garden’s Cash Market appeared in the Duluth News Tribune 100 years ago. The two at right are from April of 1919; the one at left is from New Year’s Day 1920.

The century that followed saw numerous businesses come and go, including Harry Gronlund’s sheet metal works, Anton Iverson’s restuarant, Stahl Mandring Coffee, Williams Brothers Barber Shop, Cobb Brothers Radio and TV, Frank’s Shoe Shop, Complete Cleaning and Supply Company, and Ace Upholstery.

In April 2001, Dan Lenarz opened Lincoln Park Wash & Web there. It was a Laundromat with an array of computers for surfing the internet. One of the first posts on Perfect Duluth Day in 2003 was a missive from one of the founders of the website, written at the wash-n-web. Scott Lunt did four loads of laundry while noting PDD was about to get its “1000th hit.”

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