How LGBTQ+ Business Owner Kristofer Bowman Opened Dream Store: Upstate MN

Photos courtesy of Kristofer Bowman/Upstate MN Store
Photos courtesy of Kristofer Bowman/Upstate MN Store

Kristofer Bowman’s retail shop on the North Shore of Grand Marais is a long-realized dream from childhood. Bowman grew up on the Iron Range of Minnesota and noticed a sweet environment surrounding the North Star State as a child.

“I think I was always moving back to Minnesota. I always thought it would be Minneapolis, honestly. I think as an 11-year-old kid, I saw men holding hands in Uptown, and I thought, “This is going to work,” Bowman shared this detail after explaining how he branched into the retail world.

Humble Beginnings

He moved from Minnesota to Indianapolis in search of undertaking the quintessential summer job as a camp counselor. After the camp counselor days receded, Bowman bought and sold vintage and industrial retail at a shop in Indianapolis for 22 years. But he couldn’t shake the idea of returning to his home state.

Eight years ago, Bowman decided to pull the plug on his Indianapolis store and return back to the land of 10,000 Lakes with “the dream of opening upstate.” The retailer said he collected all the contacts and skills to keep the shop successful from his previous work as a retail owner and chased the hope of living in the gorgeous area of Grand Marais.

“Somehow, I stumbled on Grand Marais, which I didn’t know super well as when I was young, but Grand Marais is such a special place. People from all over the world come,” Bowman confessed.

Part of what makes Upstate MN so special is the full circle moment for Bowman. Each day he heads to work, he remembers that little boy wishing to open a store in the same wild woods where he spent his childhood years.

Upstate MN’s Personality

Upstate MN is a northern store without the offerings of one.

“I don’t sell moose or loons, and it turns out I don’t have to. But I don’t know that that would work in many other northern places,” Bowman humors Lavender Magazine.

The backbone of Upstate MN’s success is fostering connections and strengthening relationships. Bowman says that he’s hugged 90% of the artists whose work he sells. Nurturing those close-knit relationships makes his store the special find it is.

“I think when I was young in retail, I used to be upset that I was just a shop kid. But what I think is always true is who you’re being is more important than what you’re doing. So I get to have this beautiful space, and really that was the goal. I wanted to connect with people. I wanted things here that were evocative of the North Shore without having to be images, through tone and texture,” he recalled.

Upstate MN Offerings

Bowman mentions that when he embarks on trips, he looks for useful materials rather than schlocky tourist trap items that are useless. So, he considered that information when deciding what to put on the shelves of his dream store.

A customer favorite is tiny wooden spoons. According to the customers, they use this item daily as it draws their memories back to their vacation on the Grand Marais Harbor.

The store has jewelry, candles, fine art literature, handmade stationery, mugs, and T-shirts with motivational phrases emblazoned for sale.

As far as the curated art selection at Upstate MN goes, the store leans more toward a contemporary feel as opposed to the common traditional theme prevalent in the community.

“I always say that I would open the store in Brooklyn with the same things. So, because I’ve been buying for so long, many of these artists I’ve known for 15 years or 18 years, but they are indeed from all over the country and some really good friends from Australia and England. And I usually still get to see those guys once or twice a year,” Bowman beamed. “Even though it’s not local, I can tell you about the people, the makers’ families, and kids and dogs. So they’re all local somewhere. We’re still feeding back into a very human economy.”

Covid’s Impact

Right now, Bowman focuses solely on Upstate MN, but before the COVID-19 Pandemic ricocheted through the world, he had another store titled Show and Tell in South Minneapolis. He ran the store for two years until the lockdown disrupted business plans.

The shop owner said the decline of the business came from the decrease in tourism, especially since summer is the slow season.

“The thing about this place is that there are only 5,000 residents in the entire county and 1300 people that live in Grand Marais Proper. So, the businesses, there are so many beautiful businesses, but the majority of your income, I think that the percentage is about 83% of the county’s income, comes from tourism. So, in order to have a store here, that’s the game you have to play. And Lutsen’s busiest time is in the winter for sure, but Grand Marais proper is very quiet still because folks are skiing until it gets dark, and then they’re having a glass of wine and sitting by a fire. So really, the majority of sales happen between June and October, November,” Bowman shared.

To combat the decrease of in-person shoppers during the brunt of COVID, Bowman bought a website domain and created a website.

“When we were all at home, people were incredibly supportive of the online store because they wanted Grand Marais to survive. I think we all went through those feelings. So it really amped up, and the web was incredible,” Bowman continued. “And since COVID, the web’s [traffic] come down because folks are out and about, and they are coming back to town. At this point, I’m trying to think of what sort of percentage the web is. I would say it’s 15 to 20% of sales at this point.”

Why You Should Shop at Upstate MN

Upstate MN supports the community. The staff wants Grand Marais to survive and thrive as a prominent tourist city while entertaining the 1,300 residents in the town. In addition to supporting artists worldwide, profits from purchases support LGBTQ+-owned businesses and keep small businesses alive.

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