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Progress Edition 2022: Aitkin businesses sold on residents, tourists in the area

Aitkin businesses that weathered the downturn in the economy during the height of the pandemic attribute their success to local residents and tourists attracted to the small town.

Curio North storefront in Aitkin
Curio North sells gifts, souvenirs, home decor, clothing and more at 118 Minnesota Ave. N. in Aitkin.
Frank Lee / Brainerd Dispatch
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AITKIN — Small town America still exists in places like Aitkin, with its quaint shops and personal service that people say keep residents from leaving and visitors coming back.

Walk up and down Minnesota Avenue in downtown Aitkin, one can spot carefully cultivated flowers in bloom in front of storefronts as likely as a person would see someone they know.

Unclaimed Freight North on Minnesota Highway 210 has been in business for almost two dozen years, according to Nick Bratland, before he purchased it almost half a year ago.

“I was looking for just another business, a good business, and I was interested in retail but not kind of little niche-kind of retail if you will — something different,” said Bratland, who also owns Spotlight Cafe and the Ice Cream Spot in Garrison.

Unclaimed Freight North

Unclaimed Freight North is a surplus dealer for unclaimed freight and liquidation products, according to its Facebook page. It is a large store but with a small-town feel in customer service.

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“We just carry a wide variety of absolutely everything,” Bratland said. “I mean you can come here and get anything from food to furniture to tools to things you've never seen before.”

An astonishing selection of home furnishings, tools, gifts, household items and more can be found in the 25,000-square-foot building with the name outside in yellow block lettering.

“Pretty much everyone around here, locally, shops here,” Bratland said. “And then you have a lot of seasonal people with cabins and lake houses and things of that nature — vacation people.”

The city of Aitkin, with its population of 2,168, is in the heart of lake country yet only two hours from downtown Minneapolis, according to the city's website.

Unclaimed Freight North owner Nick Bratland stands in an aisle among the Aitkin's furniture for sale.
Nick Bratland owns Unclaimed Freight North at 42190 Minnesota Highway 210 in Aitkin. “We just carry a wide variety of absolutely everything,” Bratland said. “I mean you can come here and get anything from food to furniture to tools to things you've never seen before.”
Frank Lee / Brainerd Dispatch

“We're right off of 210 so there's a lot of traffic that drives by every single day from Aitkin to Brainerd and everywhere else,” Bratland said of Unclaimed Freight North.

Aitkin is the county seat of Aitkin County. The county’s population was 15,697 as of the 2020 census.

“Aitkin is a great community. It's a very small town, a very friendly community, so our locals are amazing,” Bratland said. “This business is probably built on just the good local Aitkin people. … We’re very small town, so we go the extra mile with deliveries and things of that nature.”

More than 33% of Aitkin County residents are age 65 and older according to population estimates last year by the U.S. Census Bureau.

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“We really work with people… just any way to help them out. We get a lot of elderly and handicapped people (with) special needs, whether it's putting together furniture in their house, delivery,” Bratland said.

Minnesota Avenue North

Traffic jams are practically nonexistent in Aitkin but motorists are likely to slow down to see sales advertised in chalk on sidewalk sandwich boards in front of decorated storefront windows.

Tracy Magnus has a cabin on Long Lake in Aitkin. The 47-year-old Lake Elmo resident recently shopped at Curio North, a gift shop, in the heart of Aitkin with a friend from Chicago.

“We actually have roots here because my great-grandma was born here. My mother was born here … and so my mom grew up at the lake,” said Magnus, a wife and mother of two.

Farm Island is a 2,054-acre lake in Aitkin County and the fourth-largest lake in the county. Magnus said her ancestors were raised on Farm Island Lake.

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“This is our go-to shop. Curio makes really great salsas and preserves and all sorts of spices and stuff,” Magnus said while shopping at the gift store with her visiting friend from the Windy City. “He had some of the curry that I had. He wanted to bring some back to Chicago.”

Magnus said she loves staying at her Long Lake cabin because of the quieter, more relaxed lifestyle even though she is used to living in bigger cities.

“It's getting busier with people coming up on the weekends and stuff in the summer,” Magnus said of Aitkin. ‘But it's very nice, like, down-to-earth, hometown feeling. And then shopping is fun because I like to come into Curio specifically because they have, like, the lake stuff.”

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Rose Greninger holds up something she made and plans to sell while standing inside All Through the House, a crafters’ cooperative on Minnesota Avenue North in Aitkin.
Rose Greninger, a vendor, can often be found working at All Through the House, a crafters’ cooperative just south of Curio North on Minnesota Avenue North in Aitkin.
Frank Lee / Brainerd Dispatch

Rose Greninger, a vendor, can often be found behind the counter at All Through the House, a crafters’ cooperative just south of Curio North on Minnesota Avenue North.

“We have, I believe, over 30 vendors, and so we all offer something different,” Greninger said. “My particular specialty is quilting. But we have everything imaginable — jewelry, woodworking.”

The crafters in the cooperative are required to occasionally work retail in the store, according to Greninger.

“During the COVID shutdown period … we did a lot of one-on-one shopping or a lot of social media,” Greninger. “We'd post things and people would say, ‘Oh, I'd like to get that,’ and then we’d deliver or meet them at the curb … curbside shopping and then some in person.”

Beanery, Grandma's

Peter Lowe owns The Beanery Cafe & Roastery, Grandma’s Pantry & Market and Block North Brew Pub in Aitkin.

“We carry a lot of organic, gluten-free products,” said Amy Wyant, manager of The Beanery Cafe & Roastery and Grandma’s Pantry & Market. “We have a wide variety of bulk items and herbs and loose leaf teas and we have a deli, so we slice our own meats and cheeses.”

Grandma’s Pantry & Market includes a specialty cheese case that has over 29 different cheeses both locally made in Minnesota and imported.

“I buy all my meat from local farmers. And by local, I mean within 49 miles of the market except for my ground elk and my ground buffalo, which I buy from South Dakota,” Wyant said.

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Wyant said Aitkin’s population increases significantly in the late spring through the fall because many people have lake cabins or lake homes, or hunting property in the region.

“With my local population, I have a lot of regulars that like to come in for their morning coffee … and then we have groups that meet here,” Wyant said of the off-season business. “For example, we have a group of pastors that meet here once a week. We have a knitting club that meets.”

Nancy Panning was enjoying what the Block North Brew Pub had to offer with a friend of hers as they sat outside on one recent summer day. The 58-year-old wife and grandmother of five from Albertville has a lake house in the Aitkin area.

“I like the small-town feel of Aitkin,” Panning of good customer service. “The shops I have shopped at I'll ask questions and they will say they will get me the information I want.”

For your information

  • 57.2% of Aitkin residents (416) are private company employees — City-Data.com.
  • The population increased 0.1% from the 2010 census to the 2020 census.

FRANK LEE may be reached at 218-855-5863 or at frank.lee@brainerddispatch.com . Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchFL .

I cover arts and entertainment, and write feature stories, for the Brainerd Dispatch newspaper. As a professional journalist with years of experience, I have won awards for my fact-based reporting. And my articles have also appeared in other publications, including USA Today. 📰
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