With a smile on his face and help from his family and employees, Tom Bislow greeted customers outside his store Friday. The grounds around TJ's Country Corner were packed with people, there to celebrate 40 years of business for the old-style country store. The celebration featured their famous fresh sausages and brats grilled for people to eat. A band played a tribute to George Jones while people dined and chatted. For dessert, revelers could enjoy a scoop of ice cream and piece of pie made by the Salem Lutheran church ladies.
Located at the heart of Mahtowa (population 370), TJ's Country Corner supplies the town with needed groceries, mailboxes, a playground, garden area, access to the bike path and a covered pavilion called the "Wurst Dome."
"It's unique that he's got everything here," said Finlayson's Stanley Thompson of Tom Bislow. "He's done a lot a work and that shows."
TJ's website (www.ourwurstisbest.com) points out that "it's not hard to find the store in Mahtowa but, just in case, we painted the building yellow."
Bislow started off as a printer who worked for the Pine Knot newspaper. As computers started coming out, the need for printers declined.
"There was no future for a printer in the newspaper trade," Bislow said, "I thought I'd better do something, so I chose this route."
Tom and his wife, Joanne, bought the Mahtowa building that once housed the Cloquet Cooperative Society grocery store and turned it into TJ's: "T" for Tom and "J" for Joanne. TJ's sells a variety of food items, drinks, newspapers, candy, clothing, gas, videos, fishing licenses, household items and more for locals and those who divert the two miles from Interstate 35 for a little shopping in downtown Mahtowa.
The sale of their famous homemade bratwurst and potato sausages didn't start until 10 years after opening the store. The sausages - made from fresh-cut lean meat, ground and seasoned - are a favorite for many.
"Our sausages are huge and a big part of our business," Bislow said.
Unique slogans like "Our Wurst is the Best" and "You Never Sausage a Place" are displayed in and outside the store and even on an I-35 billboard (hence the diversions).
Besides selling basic grocery items, sausages and meat, TJ's is home to many different events throughout the year.
"They are not normal events," said Joanne. "These are events Tom [holds] to keep people coming down here to find us."
Some events are held once a year, like the vintage snowmobile rally, the beard and mustache contest, or the bratwurst festival (which was part of the "40 years of business" celebration Friday).
A street market started out as a farmers' market but later changed when Bislow started inviting a larger number of vendors that didn't all focus on food. The street market takes place every Sunday, May through September.
TJ's holds chicken swaps twice over the same months as the street market.
"People bring in their animals and sell them or trade them," Bislow said. "It's a huge event. People come from all over northern Minnesota for it."
The events take work to put on but are popular. Bislow estimated 400 people attended the anniversary celebration on Friday.
"Tom has worked hard, really hard and kept this place going remarkably well," Joanne said.
The ninth annual Rat Rod Rendezvous will be the next event to take place at TJ's over the weekend of Sept. 2-3. To get to TJ's, follow Highway 61 to Mahtowa or take exit 227 off I-35, turn right and go about two miles west on County Road 4 and follow the signs to TJ's. The address is 2751 Market Street, Mahtowa. TJ's is open 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. seven days a week.