Minna Aaparyti BFA '90 (Printmaking)

Minna Aaparyti had just finished walking her rescued golden retriever mix, Sophie, when I met her at the front door of her Fishtown shop, the Craft Foundry, (701 Belgrade Street, Philadelphia). Mustafa, a handsome black cat, slid by us as we entered the cozy store. Elsewhere on the premises, not taking interviews, was Marcel, a blonde cat with, reportedly, a shaky sense of balance.

Minna, owner of this collection of characters, was born in Finland, but has lived in the U.S. for years now. She smiles when she explains that her beginnings spent in nature influence how she has developed her business philosophy.

"Finland," she says, "is all about nature and being part of it … being outside. I had to ski to school to get there."

But Minna's life has been a bit more complex than that snowy start. She and her mother left for Iran when she was 10, at a time when that country was in the midst of a revolution She spent three years in Iran, with travels to India, Greece and Italy, and occasional trips home to Finland — then moved to Iraq for a year. During her time in Iraq a war with Iran started, causing a host of passport concerns. In the midst of these travels, her mother married a man from India.

She was a young world traveler by the time she got to the University of the Arts, yet the rigor of the curriculum left its impression on her.

"I remember those freshman projects … you stayed up all night, you know?"

Years spent living in other cultures and, after school, learning how to create and sell jewelry while working with a local shopkeeper, lead to an understanding of the materials and issues that mattered to her. And all that travel far from her native Finland nurtured an interest in learning how to take a sense of home along with you. Now, her shop and website offer "eco-friendly, handcrafted gifts for the body and home." And Minna is serious about each purchase "promoting a more sustainable planet."

Minna started out at her Fishtown location years earlier, after having taught classes at UArts and at St. Joe’s Prep.

"When I bought [the Belgrade Street building] 10 years ago, it was just a place for work. Then I thought why not teach here? Simple is better." And she began to offer workshops in book binding, handmade cards, papers and jewelry design, which she continues to this day.

With the opening of her shop, Minna quickly built a rich selection of affordable, artisanal offerings meant to awaken the senses and make one curious about what the next table might hold. These are not the slick wares of a hipster boutique. Instead, you'll find hand wrought jewelry that may include beads from distant countries or sculpted metal elements, hand painted and elegantly bound journals with exotic papers — some so tiny you could wear them — and others large enough for all your secrets.

The soy candles she carries are "freshly poured this week!" by a local artist and presented in quirky glassware of the kind you might find in antique stores. "Soy is better for the environment," Minna explains.

Soaps infused with fresh pink clay and cilantro, teas you can open and sniff, and textured, locally made scarves round out a quick sensory survey of what's on offer. And all of this romantic diversion from life's hardships belie the road Minna, the businesswoman, has had to negotiate.

A pioneer in a new generation of retailers setting up in Fishtown, Minna weathered some bumpy early days. But she committed to the neighborhood and renovated her space, opening a wide window to bring in more light — and beckon more local customers. Her shop's brick exterior is welcoming, with a wall-mounted garden  — another item she sells.

Minna reminisced about how it all started. Fresh out of UArts, she'd caused a sensation with her beautiful handcrafted journals. Some were purchased by Oprah's Angel Network as gifts. In other cases, she took to the streets of New York and would cold-call shops in order to sell them.

"I was pretty brazen about it ... I'd walk into a place and ask 'is there a buyer around?'" Her strategy worked. Later, when she'd been in business for a while, Minna took a business class and began learning from others,

"I learned from people who'd figured it out. Who told me you can't be afraid to fail, trying to learn the good stuff and how they're weathering all of that," she said, as she gestured to the street — implying the economic realities in which retailers do business today.

They taught Minna an important lesson that she carries with her: "You can't start doubting yourself."

More about Minna: