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It’s a quaint downtown filled with character and characters, says the head of its chamber. And now, after 170 years, Anoka merchants say they’re ready to challenge Stillwater and Red Wing as destinations for tourists seeking a historic downtown by the river.

In a city known for its eclectic mix of specialty stores, bars and novelty shops in 19th century buildings, the latest additions include an antique store for guys, a tea room in a 155-year-old house and a conceal-and-carry firearms training shop. Yes, this is Anoka, where boutiques and bargains reign, history is ever-present and two downtown merchants display posters that say “guns are welcome,” while others say part of downtown’s draw is its “north suburban” attitude.

“As this town started to transition, we wondered, ‘Can we have enough cool stores to keep somebody here longer than just an afternoon?’ ” asked Pete Turok, president of the Anoka Area Chamber of Commerce. “Well, we’ve reached that day.”

Nestled a short driving distance between the Rum and Mississippi rivers, downtown Anoka can’t boast Red Wing’s bluffs, Stillwater’s proximity to the St. Croix or Excelsior’s Lake Minnetonka shore. But the self-​proclaimed Halloween capital, 25 miles northwest of downtown Minneapolis, has become a year-round magnet for lawyers and government workers and shoppers, as well as Twin Cities-area Harley riders who meet at the River City Saloon for group excursions each Wednesday.

Opening a ‘mantique shop’

And it’s attracting entrepreneurs like John Parks, a designer of antique-like signs who plans to open his “mantique” shop on 2nd Avenue on June 1, and says he came to downtown Anoka because of its low rental costs.

“I’ve always wanted to have a place in Anoka,” said Parks, a sign painter for 35 years. “There’s some kind of magnetism here.

“This is the kind of place that you know that if you have a store with old pinball machines, old-fashioned signs, maybe jukeboxes, you’d gravitate toward that. I had a woman from Ireland come in and ask me to make her a boxing sign, something that says ‘Bare Knuckles Bar.’ I get inspired by requests like that.

“I don’t know if you get the same kind of customer in Excelsior or Stillwater.”

Dee Kopp, who has owned Yours, Mine & Ours Antiques for 20 years, describes Anoka as “working class” and says that’s part of the attraction.

“People come to our antique shops expecting prices that are reasonable,” she said.

The vacancy rate along Main Street is down to 1 percent, said City Manager Tim Cruikshank. That’s a dramatic change from a few years ago, when Anoka and its periodically empty storefronts seemed like a poster for the spiraling economy.

Two years ago, a major road and sidewalk construction facelift tested customers and merchants. Now it’s paying dividends, said Leah Johnson, whose Little Havana Tobacco shop on Jackson Street shares a block with a strip of bars and restaurants, a two-minute walk from the county government center.

In the case of the Mad Hatter Tea Room, the city played another role — preserving the pre-Civil War era Woodbury House that now houses a tea room that’s morphed into a restaurant. In return, owner Liz Koch is doing more than adding fine dining to a group of already popular restaurants.

‘We all have the same goal’

“My goal is to change the gateway to this city, turn it more upscale,” she said. “I’ve heard people say Anoka is hillbilly. There’s very much more to us than that.”

“We all have the same goal — to acknowledge the history of the downtown area and keep everything as original as possible,” said tobacco shop owner Johnson, whose store is housed in an old funeral parlor, with an archway where caskets once were displayed.

Johnson described the “guns are welcome” sign on her store’s door as an acknowledgment of the area being “Second Amendment friendly.”

“We’re not closed-minded. We don’t judge anybody,” she said. “Everybody is welcome.”

That includes the new MN Firearms Training, a second-floor storefront between the tobacco shop and the River City Saloon. The store, run by professional bodyguard Michael Briggs, opened two months ago to little fanfare.

“I suppose it’s all right, but it creeps me out a little bit,” said Tracy Beck, who owns Lillian’s Designer Styles, a tiny shop that serves browsers cookies and lemonade and announces with the ringing of a bell, “Attention, ladies, we have a man in the store,” when one wanders in.

“I think of Anoka as an adorable river city with an interesting group of merchants,” Beck said of a city first settled in 1844. “But gun training? I guess downtown just got more interesting.”

Briggs’ training classes include men and women instructors and cater to all — novice handgun owners, experienced marksmen and kids learning to hunt. He says he doubts he would have tried to open his business in, say, Minnetonka.

“But this is a northern suburb downtown,” Briggs said. “I think the neighborhood likes having us here because it makes it more secure. People here are very vocal about supporting their firearms. It’s kind of a boys’ club here.”

Briggs wisely introduced himself to the Anoka police and county deputies, many of whom are interested in buying weapons from him, he said. He also has ridden with the biker crowd at the River City Saloon, said bar owner Holly Brezinka.

“It’s part of our downtown,” Brezinka said. “Somehow, it works.”

‘The mix … makes it all work’

It has persevered despite outsiders’ perception that Anoka, being up north, is much farther from Minneapolis than Stillwater, White Bear Lake, Chaska or other quaint metro area downtowns.

“We’re not in Brainerd,” Turok said.

Stores like Peterson Shoes, Jensen’s Department Store and Gould’s jewelry store have catered to several generations.

“You don’t see big businesses here,” said Justin Matthews, a barber at Cowboy Mel’s Barber Shop. “And it’s an ideal town for walking. That’s what makes it work.”

When drivers approach downtown Anoka from Hwy. 169, the first image is one of downtown’s two tattoo parlors. Walk a block and you discover the Happenstance home decor store, a quilt shop, and Truffles and Tortes Dessert Cafe and Pucci Pet Career Studios, a school for dog groomers.

“It’s the mix that makes it all work,” said Dawn O’Bannon, who owns the Sweet River Candy Co. and Main Floral. “This may be the best mix we’ve had.”

On one corner of 2nd Avenue, there’s an antique store. Redrum, a head shop, is across the street. So is the firearms store.

“We’re different,” Mayor Phil Rice said. “But we’re not that much different from Stillwater or Red Wing. There’s history here, too, you know.”

Paul Levy • 612-673-4419