After more than 22 years of ownership, Darlene Warra Bjornsgard and Dorothy Warra Smith will hand off their iconic downtown Astoria gift shop, Finn?Ware, Saturday.

The Finnish sisters have sold the business to Astoria native and fellow Finn Saara Matthews, and her husband, Greg, so they can retire.

Bjornsgard and Smith have long been a staple in Astoria's downtown business community and in annual celebrations of Scandinavian heritage.

Their store has distinguished itself with a unique line of hand-crafted products from?Finland, Denmark, Sweden and Norway.

"We've become a destination for people," said Smith.?"You don't find this everywhere."

Finns were their focus when Bjornsgard and Smith opened the store in July of 1987.

Their inspiration came from Leavenworth, Wash., a Bavarian town with several stores boasting Scandinavian products.

"We were always so disappointed because there were never any Finnish things,"?said Bjornsgard. "We are 100 percent Finnish."

They started the business in a 7-foot by 30-foot retail space on Commercial Street. Since then, they've opened and closed a second location in Cannon Beach, moved the Astoria storefront twice and turned the shop into a leading U.S. retailer of Finland's iittala crystal and glassware.

"One year we were the top seller," said?Bjornsgard. "We were a little shocked. In 1993, they gave us a wonderful free trip to Finland."

The shop's colorful, hand-blown iittala Oiva Toikka birds - named after the Finnish artist who designed them - are some of the most celebrated items on their shelves.

"It's a beautiful design," said Bjornsgard. "You don't have to be Finnish to appreciate it."

To build up their clientele, the sisters promoted the shop at Scandinavian festivals around the country and started publishing a catalog in 1990.

Last year they printed 15,000 catalogs that were delivered to addresses in all 50 states.

Bjornsgard said one of the biggest changes the shop has gone through is a switch from primarily local shoppers to predominantly tourists.

"We've had a nice local base, and there is a Scandinavian presence here. We've been profoundly grateful for that," she said. "But when we first opened, it was more of a local business, and tourism was secondary. Then it kind of became a 50-50 thing after awhile. And now I would say the last few years we would not survive without tourism."

Matthews was born and raised in?Astoria, and she remembers when Finn Ware first opened.

Her mom was born and raised in Finland and recorded the first radio advertisements for Smith and Bjorngard's business.

Matthews said she doesn't want to change anything about the shop at first. Later, she'll bring in purses, linens and dishes from the Finnish company Marimekko.

"One of my goals is to branch it out," she said. "It's not just for Scandinavians and Finns. I think it could have appeal with a lot of people."

Smith and Bjornsgard say they will miss all the people they get to meet through their business.

"It's been fun,"?said?Smith. "We've had contacts with special people we've met through the years. We care about their lives. But it's time for a new, younger enthusiastic person to take over. Saara has the passion for it. She's got youth on her side."

A farewell event with refreshments and a drawing will be held at the store on May 8.

"It's been gratifying to see the business grow through the years and to give birth to it," Bjornsgard said. "It's one of the hardest things because you give birth to it, see it grow and then have to let it go. ... Overall, we have had so many wonderful, wonderful relationships with vendors, other businesses and the people both local and visitors that are priceless really. I do not say that easily. It's so true. We'll both miss that very very much."


(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.