Work & Business
The Harmony of Swedish KonturNovember 16, 2016
Years ago, a Swedish family visited a quaint Scandinavian shop in a quiet, cozy town in Minnesota. They asked if the founders of the store were there, only to be told they weren’t. The family wanted to know: Did the founders sing? No, they didn’t.
“If my name was Björling and I didn’t sing, I would leave the country, too,” one of the Swedes joked.
Anders Björling didn’t sing. His siblings, uncles, mother and grandfather did. His father sang as well, very well in fact.
“I think I am the only one in the family who doesn’t sing,” Björling said. “It doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate it. I do. I appreciate classical music and opera very much.”
The fact that he didn’t sing played a role in his coming to that small Minnesota town, St. Peter, to attend Gustavus Adolphus College, which was founded in 1862 by Swedish Americans. It led to opening that Swedish shop, Swedish Kontur Imports, in 1962, which he said is the oldest Scandinavian shop with the same continuous ownership in the country.
The fact that he didn’t sing is noteworthy for another reason. Björling is the son of Jussi Björling, one of the greatest opera singers of all time.
The elder Björling was ranked by the BBC as the fifth-best tenor of all time, behind the likes of legends Plácido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti, and performed for many years at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Pavarotti told a Swedish newspaper in 1988 that “I would more than anything wish that people compared me with Jussi Björling. That’s how I’m striving to sing.” Domingo, for his part, once called the legend’s wife while in Stockholm for a performance asking for a recommendation for a Jussi song – he performed “Till Havs” in appreciation of Björling.
Anders Björling, the oldest of three children, said he got more attention than his siblings of just going to the opera. Too much attention, perhaps. When he was eight or nine, he sang for the Swedish Radio Boys Chorus – he didn’t like it at all.
“First of all, I think I realized at an early age to follow in your father’s footsteps, when he’s so famous, it’s tough,” Björling said.
Björling took a different path.
In 1956, he came to the United States to attend college. His first day on the Gustavus Adolphus campus, he met a girl named Janet, who was working at the campus bookstore.
“I really liked her right away,” Björling said. “I guess she said she liked me, too.”
Janet was responsible for keeping track of the books Björling needed as part of his scholarship to attend the school. Rather than picking up all his books at once, Björling bought one book at a time.
“There were a lot of books,” Björling said.
The pair began dating and before long, Janet was telling her roommate, a music major, about her Swedish boyfriend whose father was an opera singer. “Oh my gosh, he’s very famous,” the roommate replied.
The pair graduated in 1958, him with an economics and business degrees, her with degrees in biology and English. Anders and Janet married right after graduation.
The newlyweds moved to Sweden that August, planning to return to the United States. They came back to St. Peter in 1962 when Björling was offered a position in the finance department at their alma mater. He worked for the university for 37 years, ultimately ending his career there as controller.
As they prepared to move back to the States, they had an idea to start a high-end Swedish gift shop.
“We didn’t know how to go about it,” Björling said. “We ordered some stuff in Sweden that we shipped to the U.S.
and was there when we arrived.”
Swedish Kontur was born, and it spent its infancy in the lower level of the Björlings’ home. Business began to pick up, which thrilled the owners but frustrated the neighbors. Björling said there may have been “some underhanded hints that we should do something about it.”
They moved the store downtown in 1967, and in 1972, they purchased the building Swedish Kontur has called home ever since.
As it was in the beginning, the shop features high-quality items, from crystal and glassware to linens and jewelry. Shoppers can find Orrefors crystal from Sweden and Iittala glassware from Finland or pick up a pair of Swedish clogs or nonperishable Scandinavian foods.
“We always try to find new things, new items, and that’s very important so it’s not the same old stuff all the time,” Björling said.
Björling credits the combination of customer service, high-quality products, Scandinavian heritage and hard work as secrets to Swedish Kontur’s success. He said he largely has been behind the scenes while Janet, who passed away in 2008, and others have created a store that has become a destination – they welcome many customers from Mankato (15 miles away), Minneapolis (70), Des Moines (225) and beyond. John Denver, Jesse Ventura and Prince Bertil, son of King Gustaf VI Adolf of Sweden, have popped in over the years.
Björling, who married again, to Judith in 2014, still is involved with Swedish Kontur and hopes one of his daughters will carry on the tradition.
Yet, he stays busy chasing another passion: photography.
Björling travels the world in pursuit of pictures, primarily nature and wildlife, that he’ll sell in the store as well as to hospitals, medical clinics and even his alma mater. He’s spent a lot of time in Iceland and also has been to the Pantanal in Brazil, the Galapagos Islands, South Africa and Morocco. His trip to Alaska last year was highlighted by grizzly bears on their salmon runs, when “they don’t pay any attention to you at all.” In February, he’ll visit Tanzania.
And he goes back to Sweden, where the Björling name lives on, at least once a year.
Each time, the man with the famous name leaves the country. A different kind of harmony awaits.