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I Lake It angles for lake lovers

Friends Lois Adee (left) and Kat Nordstrand, both of International Falls, shop at the new I Lake It store at the Miller Hill Mall earlier this week. The two drive down once a year to do their Christmas shopping. I Lake It, which opened in October, features local and nautically-themed gifts, home decor, apparel and arts. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com1 / 3
Justin Steinbach, owner of I Lake It at the Miller Hill Mall, describes the local and nautically themed merchandise his store offers. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com2 / 3
A painting titled "Fleeting Vistas" by local artist Adam Swanson is one of many locally-created artworks, books, crafts and home decor items available at I Lake It. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com3 / 3

Amid the wooden signs and model ships on a backdrop of white paneling and navy blue paint, it's easy to forget you can't walk outside and find yourself on a dock. You're in Miller Hill Mall.

I Lake It, a locally owned retailer that recently opened in the mall, has taken the Land of 10,000 Lakes motif to the next level.

"People have a culture they've come to know in Duluth, what I'm identifying as lake culture," said owner Justin Steinbach. "And it becomes part of their identity."

From local art and crafts to apparel and home decor, the offerings and the space itself are meant to evoke a lake cabin, a lakeside memory or just a love of the Minnesota outdoors.

"It's experiential — my wife's done a really good job of telling a story," Steinbach said.

Steinbach and his wife, Sarah, own Vista Fleet and the accompanying 5,000-square-foot store on Canal Park. While that has proven successful, they found it was limited to a largely tourist market.

"We were bringing in products with local appeal," he said. "Rather than try to force people to come down to us in Canal, why not bring them that shopping experience?"

I Lake It opened in October after a month and a half of rehabbing the corner location facing Teavana and Younkers just inside the main entrance of the mall. Several signs and a polished metal facade draw the eyes inside to the neatly arranged offerings.

Past the wooden ornaments, carved table decorations, signs and hanging lanterns, there's a selection of soaps and candles leading to apparel on iron racks and offcut shelves Steinbach installed to give a rustic feeling in the middle of the mall.

"That's something you can't get online," he said.

It all comes back to providing that lake culture the Steinbachs have grown to love and make a living on.

One of the greatest points of pride for the Steinbachs is their selection of more than a dozen local makers, who now have a home for their products inside Miller Hill Mall.

"Part of our mission was to take the store we had and also expand the mission, adding Duluth and other local artists and craftsmen," Steinbach said, pointing to paintings by Adam Swanson and custom wood tables, one featuring Lake Superior driftwood, by Aaron Hornibook.

I Lake It joins Art in the Alley and Legacy Toys as locally owned stores in the mall, making for a rare case of possible overlap between the big retail-heavy Black Friday and Small Business Saturday.

The holiday display was already in place earlier this week as the store prepared for the coming onslaught of shoppers. For Thanksgiving and Black Friday, I Lake It is offering a Vista Fleet sightseeing ticket for every $20 spent and half-off Vista Fleet gift cards.

"We'd like to see them do well," Steinbach said with a laugh.

Brooks Johnson

Brooks is an investigative/enterprise reporter and business columnist at the Duluth News Tribune.

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