Thirty years ago or thereabouts, an immigrant arrived in Minnesota from a land that knew no winter. A transplanted Californian from the San Francisco Bay Area, the newcomer had a small child and a husband who was constantly traveling for business. The first flakes of what was to be a harsh winter had already begun to fall and the immigrant knew not a single neighbor. Worse still—she had absolutely no idea how to drive in snow. There was one bright spot. On her first morning in Minnesota, she walked one block from her house to the Como Avenue shopping district of St. Anthony Park and realized, “This is going to work. I have everything I need right here on Como Avenue.” In the three decades since, the mixture of businesses that stretch down Como Avenue between Doswell Avenue and Knapp Street has changed a little, but the district still provides a passer-by with practically everything that makes life feasible, interesting and fun.
Start with food. If you haven’t stopped at Tim & Tom’s Speedy Market within the last week, you’ve probably been away on vacation. Emporium of the familiar as well as showcase of the gastronomically exotic, Speedy Market is also a great place to see your neighbors. Maybe once upon a time it was simply a quick-stop market to pick up the forgotten gallon of milk and loaf of bread, but owners Tom Spreigl and Tim Faacks have long since transformed the place into a little gourmet temple that caters to the varied tastes and culinary backgrounds of its customers. Check it out for bargain organic produce, as well as German cookies, Irish butter and a full selection of Mexican and Asian food specialties. There’s even a traditional tinned British dessert called “Spotted Dick”—a delicacy that this reporter has never had the nerve to try. But who wants to eat every meal at home?
Right across the street from Speedy, you’ll find Colossal Café, which serves everything from benchmark breakfasts to bistro-style lunches and dinners. Despite its name, the Colossal has a pocket-size dining room that could easily fill up every day with diners drawn exclusively from the neighborhood. Since the Colossal’s reputation extends far beyond the neighborhood, it can be very, very crowded.
Fortunately, help for the hungry diner is only a block away at the corner of Carter and Como, where two other landmark eating establishments stand ready. Both The Finnish Bistro (which shares premises with Dunn Bros. Coffee) and Muffuletta have carved out enviable reputations for memorable menus. The Finnish Bistro serves all-day breakfasts that include Scandinavian delicacies like cardamom-scented pulla rolls and reindeer sausage. Muffuletta, which is named after a New Orleans sandwich that has remained on the menu ever since the restaurant opened 37 years ago, was the first venue in the area to obtain a beer and wine license. Its terrace remains one of the nicest outdoor dining spots in the Twin Cities.
And that’s not all. Lady Elegant’s Tea Room at Milton Square serves the rarefied delights of “veddy British” high tea. For those who don’t follow the PBS show Downton Abbey closely, it might be pointed out that high tea is not just a beverage but an English meal complete with cakes, biscuits and little sandwiches. Speaking of beverages, Milton Square also houses The Little Wine Shoppe, where an international selection of wines, craft beers and selected spirits offers something for every palate. Of course, man (and woman) does not live by bread alone, not even when the bread is Swedish limpa rye resting comfortably beneath a slice of the Finnish Bistro’s smoked salmon. The Como Avenue shopping district offers plenty of shopping opportunities for the rest of your needs. There’s Park Service to keep your vehicles in tip-top shape, and several dentists and therapists to do the same for your teeth and psyche. Not to mention EyeDeals for eye care and glasses, and Acupuncture with Cadance to help you face life’s aches and pains.
Want to buy a gift? Whether the present is intended for someone special or for yourself, you have Emil Gustafson for jewelry, Bungalow Pottery at Milton Square for unique display pieces, and Bibelot for everything else. If you’re looking for a one-of-a-kind item for the house, try Thistle, the eclectic boutique in the basement of Milton Square that opens only on special weekends and by appointment. Or visit Carter Ave. Frame Shop to get ideas for framing anything from a recently purchased watercolor to your child’s first-grade self-portrait to a treasured memento from a trip abroad. Is there a child or an expectant parent on your list? Peapods Natural Toys and Baby Care offers everything from eco-friendly toys to free classes on cloth-diapering techniques. How about updating your look? Try Salon in the Park for a full range of salon hair care services. Your face will thank you if you make an appointment with Complexions on Carter, a skincare boutique on the second floor of Milton Square. Esthetician Maggie Miley offers a 60-minute “Signature Facial” that includes massage, cleansing and hydration.
But don’t forget your inner self. Both Micawber’s Books and the Saint Anthony Park branch of the Saint Paul Public Library offer plenty to interest your mind and engage your soul. Owner Tom Bielenberg thinks Micawber’s is the oldest independent book store in Saint Paul, and he still offers a 10 percent discount to anyone who signs up for Micawber’sFrequent Buyers Club. And if you’ve got inner depths, why not flaunt them? Vanessa Carrara and Sharri Keller of Satôri Photographyat Milton Square begin every session with quirky questions designed to help them reveal the personality of their subjects.
“We try to peel back the layers to tell the unique story of our clients,” says Carrara.
“Do you secretly color coordinate your wardrobe to match your family?” is one of their jumping-off points. Answer “no” and you might find yourself choosing an outdoors setting for your photography session. A “yes” answer could lead to an “architectural” setting featuring “clean lines” and “contemporary appeal.”
Questions like these are just part of what Jon Schumacher, executive director of the Saint Anthony Park Community Foundation, the co-sponsor of Park B4 Dark and other special shopping events, thinks is the survival strategy of local businesses like those on Como Avenue. Ever alert to the threat of “big box stores,” he says, “[they] never can compete in price…their way to compete is service, proximity and personal connections to the customers.”
In other words, think of the Como Avenue stores as a social experience as well as a shopping one. They’re also an economic boon to the neighborhood, says Mary Hamel, Executive Director of the Metro Independent Business Alliance.
“Shopping districts like Como Avenue help hold the value of our homes steady,” she says. “It’s lucky that so many businesses are locally owned. The profits stay in the community and the business decisions are made locally.”
Of course, a day of shopping can be hard on more than your wallet. If all the buying decisions leave you feeling temporarily overwhelmed, consider this: The Como Avenue business district can help you escape (visit Como Rose Travel in the Healy building at the corner of Doswell Avenue) or focus on more serious things as well. A little farther east on Como Avenue is Jim Roehrenbach’s State Farm Insurance agency to safeguard your valuables and Steve Townley Re/Max real estate, in case the unthinkable happens and you want to leave the area. Remember the sobering adage that nothing in life is certain except death and taxes? The area has those certainties covered too. A choice of Como Avenue churches and Luther Seminary are there to take care of the next life. As for this one, why postpone the inevitable? You can finish up your day with a tax or financial strategizing appointment at the office of Catherine Holtzclaw Planning, LLC or estate planning at Pierce Richards Law Office at Milton Square.
Judy Woodward is a reference librarian at Roseville Public Library and a regular contributor to the Park Bugle.