THUNDER BAY -- Down the street from the Hoito, a little Finnish gift shop has been open since 1975. Established in 1975 by Tarmo Pihlaja, Finnport sold cross country skis, sauna supplies and gifts imported from Finland.
When Pihlaja was ready to retire, he sold the shop to Diana Milton and Mona Pitkanen in 1997, and the two continued selling giftware and kitchenware. Pitkanen retired a year ago, and now Milton is the sole owner of the shop.
“We’ve had a lot of regular customers over the years,” Milton says. “Some people are of Finnish descent, while others just love Finnish design. It’s a nice mix of ages.”
The shop sells Marimekko home decor and clothing, sauna supplies, baby clothes, Muurla and Moomin kitchenwares, jewelry and more. “The quality and design of Finnish products feel timeless,” Milton says of the popularity of the products she sells.
Milton has seen many changes over the years. When she and Pitkanen got into the gift shop business, there were few big box stores in Thunder Bay, she thinks. “Big box stores changed the landscape of retail. It makes you really think about what you’re bringing in. We did change a lot of the products. We used to carry a lot of kitchenware, but we decided to refocus on things from Finland, then you’re not competing with Walmart,” she says.
The neighbourhood has changed too. Finnport is one of the oldest surviving businesses in the area: “our next-door neighbour used to be a video rental place. And on the other side there was Star TV, a TV repair place,” Milton reminisces.
“Our neighbourhood has really developed; there’s a lot more walking traffic,” Milton says. “But you can still hear Finnish being spoken in the neighbourhood, and that’s really neat.”