A beloved retail institution in downtown Astoria is changing hands after more than two decades.
The Scandinavian gift shop Finnware has a new owner - but fans needn't worry. The store's traditional and homespun offerings will continue pretty much as before, with a few interesting twists.
Finnware's motto: "siskojen kauppa" says it all about the store's history; the Finnish phrase means "sisters' business." The company was the brainchild of sisters Darlene Warra Bjornsgard and Dorothy Warra Smith, who founded it in Astoria more than 22
|Sisters Dorothy Warra Smith (left) and Darlene Warra Bjornsgard have sold Finnware, the Scandinavian gift shop they opened over 22 years ago in Astoria. Photo courtesy of Finnware.|
Bjornsgard said when they first opened the shop, there were two other Scandinavian themed stores in Astoria, but neither sold very many items from Finland, a country with strong ties to the city's heritage.
Finnware opened, but the sisters were careful not to compete with the other stores and made sure to carry different merchandise.
Now after decades of delighting residents and visitors with a charming shop that is an oasis of Scandinavian culture, the sisters are ready to let someone else take the reins.
They have left Finnware in good hands. New owner Saara Matthews (maiden-name Carlson) has just the right credentials to take over and continue the store's traditions.
Born and raised in Astoria, her mother was born in Finland, and she has relatives living in that country. Her dad's family also hails from Finland. Growing up, she was very involved in the Scandinavian Midsummer Festival, an annual tradition in Astoria, serving as both junior and senior Miss Finland.
Matthews even spent a year of college study at a university in Tampere, Finnland, and also lived abroad elsewhere in Europe. She moved back to Astoria about 11 years ago.
These days, Matthews is vice chair and booth chairperson for the Scandinavian Midsummer Festival, and is on the board of trustees of the Finnish Brotherhood locally.
Matthews and her husband, Greg, will both be involved in running the business. The couple has three sons.
She had been considering buying the store for about a decade, regularly discussing the idea with Bjornsgard and Smith, but the time wasn't right until recently.
She wants to reassure customers that things will pretty much continue as usual in the store with some interesting additions.
"The most immediate new thing is to bring in the Marimekko line," she said. "It's a Finnish brand - they make fabrics, dishes and purses."
Matthews also plans to add more ethnic food to Finnware's offerings. She said she's nervous, but excited about taking over the store.
"It's huge," she said.
Bjornsgard, on the other hand, said she's looking forward to retirement.
"My total identity is not tied up here. I'm not so naïve to think that somebody else couldn't do it better," she said. "But I know every item here [in the store]."
She's been reassuring worried customers that she and Smith never had any intention to close the shop, but wanted to sell it so it would continue on.
Finnware officially changes hands on at the beginning of May, and on Saturday, May 8, Finnware will hold a "Thank You" day where Bjornsgard and Smith will bid farewell to customers, and shoppers will have an opportunity to meet Matthews. The sisters will stay on through the month to help with the transition.
"We will miss all the people," Bjornsgard said. "It's been a great ride."