Bergquist Imports celebrates its 60th - putting a little bit of Scandinavia in every home in America

Sixty years ago, Margaret and Richard Bergquist had a goal - to put a little bit of Sweden into every home in rural America. In order to do that, they first put a lot of Sweden into their own Cloquet home.

Sixty years ago, Margaret and Richard Bergquist had a goal - to put a little bit of Sweden into every home in rural America. In order to do that, they first put a lot of Sweden into their own Cloquet home.

"To save expenses, they used their home as a base of operations, then called Bergquist Swedish Imports," son and co-owner Barry Bergquist explained. "The bedroom became an office, the basement a warehouse, the sun room for display and the garage for overflow inventory. I remember climbing on and around the big crates from Sweden in the garage and for a young boy, it was a lot of fun."

Bergquist joked that he was actually the reason for the business to come into existence. Before Bergquist Imports, there was the Silverdip Dairy Inn, which his parents opened in 1937 in what is now the former Ed's Bakery building on Cloquet Avenue.

His parents made their own ice cream and often they would stay up all night to make it and then spend all day scooping it.

"My mother always said they had to sell the business because when she became pregnant with me, she could no longer keep those hours and eventually, she couldn't reach the ice cream to scoop it anymore," Bergquist said.


With strong ties to Sweden - Margaret's family hailed from the country while Richard was born there before moving to the U.S. as a young boy - it was only natural to think of it when coming up with a new business concept.

"My mom was a natural-born saleslady, so this endeavor wasn't too surprising," Bergquist said. "She called herself 'a walking department store.'"

In 1947, the couple traveled to Sweden and during the next several years spent all their savings on Swedish gifts, from hand-blown glass to crystal. The business out of their home began to grow almost immediately as they visited and sold merchandise to "every gift shop and resort in northern Minnesota," Barry said. In 1951, they rented space on Carlton Avenue to house their goods. By 1954, they had moved to their current space on Highway 33, which has been expanded over the years to hold a retail store, offices, warehouse, shipping department, museum and wholesale showroom.

In addition, Bergquist Imports has operated a wholesale showroom in Minneapolis since the '50s and Minneapolis has since truly become the hub for Scandinavian imports, according to Barry.

"We've held shows in the Minneapolis area for years and years," he said. "Distributors come from all over the country to Minneapolis for their Scandinavian goods and it's a great feeling to have people come from all over excited to see our work and imported items."

As the Bergquist children grew, they all played varying roles in the business. Barry's older brother, Dale, worked in the business for five years, before moving on to other endeavors. Barry's sister, Carol, became involved in the 1950s in office management as well as in buying trips overseas. Her husband, Frank, became warehouse manager in 1959.

Barry worked in the warehouse while in school and after studying business administration and economics in college, he took a job in sales. He met wife Vivian, who was employed in the International Division of the First National Bank of Boston. Soon after they were married, they moved back to Cloquet and bought the wholesale business from Barry's mother in 1980. His father had died in 1969.

By then, Bergquist Imports was selling items not only from Sweden, but from Norway, Denmark and Finland as well. They created their first catalog in 1955, which consisted of a few pages of black and white photos. Today, the catalog consists of 48 full-color pages featuring everything from books to clocks to T-shirts, candles, crystal and Christmas ornaments, just to name a few.


After Barry and Vivian purchased the business, an opportunity came their way to buy a Swedish business outside Chicago that made many of the items Bergquist Imports sold.

They acquired Berggren Trayner in 1986 and moved it to Cloquet. Under sister Carol's leadership, the china decorating company specializing in Scandinavian tiles, mugs, plates and dinnerware has operated in the back 10,000 square-feet of the building successfully ever since. Carol retired in 2005 and the business continues. Their product line has now grown to over 1,500 items and they can boast the largest selection of Scandinavian gifts in the United States. Fifteen employees in a total space of 30,000 square feet make the entire operation happen at Bergquist Imports. They also work with four artists who design many of the items, including several who create a variety of items with rosemaling.

To celebrate their 60th year in business, the Bergquists commissioned friend and Finnish artist Karla Kiheri, of Cromwell, to paint a mural on the front of their building. The mural was inspired by Swedish postcards from the 1940s.

"We are so impressed with the finished product," Bergquist said. "It gives our building a true Scandinavian flavor."

During the March show for wholesale distributors, the Bergquists also held a small party with cake and drinks to mark the anniversary. This year's catalog also includes a brief history of the company.

Although they've seen many changes in those 60 years, the goal is the same - only expanded.

"Thanks to our loyal customers we will continue to strive for the goal of putting a little bit of Scandinavia in every home in America," Bergquist said.

What To Read Next
Get Local