Going to the grocery store is worth the trip again.

Rumors of strange anomalies have been heard around the neighborhood of Tapanila, so we went in to investigate. We found an extraordinary location at which mystical phenomena occur: not only high quality products, delicacies and treats are being offered at competitive prices, stepping into this chic family shop takes one back to a time in which self-service and massive, depersonalized malls were unheard of; a time when friendly faces would pick and weigh and pack the items for you, knew you by name, and made trivial trips to the grocery store an enjoyable experience.

Climbing either of the short stairs that lead in and opening the door, one is received first with a welcoming coolness, a balsam from the outside heat (the building’s facade looks roughly north, so it’s sheltered from direct sunlight). Then with an intoxicating aroma-mix of spices, fresh fruit and bread, and espresso. The place, run by the Pakkala family, is real and it’s called Liike 51.

Hello, Sari and Tuomas! Since when is Liike 51 functioning?
Sari: Exactly three years. We are celebrating, actually!

Congratulations! Do you live here in the house?
Sari: No, we live not far from here, but this house belongs to my family. My mother still lives upstairs, and we rent the shop space from her.

Uh. What if you’re late with the rent?
Sari: (laughs) We’re never late, I’m very strict. It’s how I want things to be.

How did the shop come to be?
Tuomas: Sari’s father constructed the building himself and set up the original shop. It’s a funny coincidence that the street address is 51, and also the founding year of the grocery store is 1951.

In the 50s the custom was to have separate shops for meat, milk, fruit…
Tuomas: That’s why the shop has two entrances. It was originally divided into three different shops. It was full service (there was no self-service then) and they had this long counter from which they would serve customers. We roughly keep the sections as they used to exist in those times.

How hard is it to administer the shop?
Sari: It’s pretty hard. We have one employee, working about twelve hours per week, but I’m mostly alone here. I put around fifteen hours per day, arranging, cleaning, organizing, selling… The shop closes at 7 o’clock in the evening, but I normally arrive home at 9 or 10 (sometimes more). All those invoices and orders for tomorrow… And then we receive the stuff, unpack, store in the warehouse… it is tough (smiles).

Tuomas: We both come from different professions (I am a software developer and Sari is an optician) and one of the things that surprised us so much was the amount of work it takes to keep the place running. She does all the stock and ordering, and finds new products, which takes considerable time. Even though it’s routine work (we order more or less the same things) estimating how much to order is not easy.

How many providers do you have, more or less?
Sari: At the moment we have around one-hundred and thirty, so it’s a lot. Some of them deliver only once per year or so.

Do all the providers ever come over at once?
Tuomas: (laughs) Not the one-hundred and thirty at once, but usually two or three do. And they park their trucks in front of the shop precisely at the same moment when most of our regular customers have also decided to come to the shop!

Sari: That’s so true. It happens a lot… (laughs)

Tuomas: I fear someday we’ll have a bus-load of Japanese tourists flooding the shop, and at that exact moment half of our providers will show up to unload their trucks…

Are you open all year, do you ever take vacations?
Sari: Our first summer we didn’t take any vacation. In our second year we took two weeks, and in our third one, coming next July, we are also going to have two weeks!

What happens to the products that need cold, during that time?
Sari: That’s complicated, yes. We had to go through that last summer, and it’s very difficult to estimate what to store before closing. And it costs a lot. But that’s how it goes, because otherwise we would have to hire more employees and our costs would skyrocket.

Sari, you used to be an optician before.
Sari: Yes, I was an optician for thirteen years, and I really liked it. At first I thought I would open an optics shop, but then… I wanted to try a grocery store, like the one my family used to own.

And are you happy with your choice?
Sari: Mostly yes. When I’m not exhausted (laughs).

I imagine that you are pretty tied up as well. If one day you catch a cold and want to stay in bed, who’s going to open the shop?
Sari: That’s true. It is very demanding.

And for you, Tuomas?
Tuomas: I used to develop software in a bank, and then decided to go solo. It was tricky at first, because the timing was not optimal (for the first year I was pretty much stuck in here), but my projects are progressing well.

Is it good for you, the variation between the intellectual work and the physical work of the shop and the interaction with people?
Tuomas: Yeah, it is. At least the part I do (laughs).

What sort of clientele comes to the shop?
Sari: We have loyal customers that come every day, or at least twice a week. They are very important for us, because otherwise it would be very difficult to survive as a shop. Many of them have been here from the first day we opened, and stayed with us.

How do you get new customers?
Sari: Word of mouth, mostly. And our style is not to advertise. We prefer that people find the place on their own, like you did, and not come because they read an ad in a magazine.

Maybe I shouldn’t publish this article, then.
Sari: (laughs) No, it’s okay!

Do you guys have kids?
Tuomas: Yes, we have one girl, eleven years old.

Does she ever come to help?
Tuomas: No, not very often.

Sari: One week can pass and we don’t see her here.

But surely she must come to eat chocolate?
Sari: (laughs) Yes, sometimes. But not often.

The design of the shop is just lovely. How much of what we see here is new, and how much is from the original shop?
Sari: Everything is new, actually. The tiles on the floor resemble the original design very closely, but we had to redo the whole floor because it was in bad shape (sixty years have passed, after all).

But who designed this amazing retro look?
Sari: We did. We painted and did everything.

What an amazing job. The space flows naturally, the merchandise is arranged simply yet efficiently… Everything just feels awesome.
Sari: Thank you. Sometimes I look at it and think “I should put this over there instead, and move that over here…” but this is how it looks like today (laughs).

What products do you offer?
Tuomas: Fresh fruits and vegetables, bread, and meat of course. The meat is from a small Finnish provider, very high-quality. And cheeses. And coffees. And teas.

Sari: We also have very good olive oils. And our bakery is excellent. We don’t sell bread from any of the big bakeries, we prefer artisans that deliver fresh to us every early morning.

I see a lot of Finnish brands here.
Tuomas: Yeah, we carry a lot of Finnish products. We also try to go for the organic whenever we can, from small Finnish producers and others not too far from Finland. That’s one of our themes as well, and it can be appreciated in our selection.

Why do you think we don’t have little stores like this anymore?
Sari: It’s difficult to say. If you ask people “would you like to go back to small shops?” everybody says “Yes, of course, that would be great!”. But then they choose to drive to Jumbo or Itäkeskus, or their local supermarket. That’s how it is in Finland. It would be lovely if Helsinki were a bit more like Paris, with all those traditional little shops, but we are not like that. Not yet, at least.

Tuomas: It could also be out of convenience. We need to shop regularly, we have ordinary schedules, and these tend to be organized around the mainstream shop. And because generic shops function like an automated factory, people tend to go there. And of course price is important as well; big shops can buy more quantities from producers, and lower the final costs.

Could there also be a question of individuality? Like we can’t or don’t want to interact with other people anymore?
Tuomas: I can’t objectively judge how good are we Finns at socializing, especially outside of our regular social group, but maybe that’s one of the factors that have made supermarkets so popular in Finland compared to other places (I’m thinking central Europe, or the UK). I think in smaller towns people connect more to small shops, even though there is the supermarket option as well. They still tend to know the clerks in the shop, and they get to meet the familiar faces regularly. But in a (bigger) city like Helsinki you interact with more people whom you know less. It’s like moving within a social group where you don’t really know the people, you just see the faces and you see them less regularly than you would in a smaller place.

You think people may be looking for some sort of anonymity?
Tuomas: I guess so, yes. You probably have the closer social group where you interact in a deeper way, and then you have the outside world which is very mechanical. And in that context some people prefer the automated option; easier, faster, cheaper.

But do you think we will get back to smaller shops, in the future?
Tuomas: In general, I don’t think so. I think the mainstream will be driven by the effectiveness, the price, and the convenience. But I also believe in the long run we’ll see more individual solutions. There are people who prefer these kind of things and are ready to pay the extra cost, willing to sacrifice a certain convenience and shop separately in smaller stores to get that something special.

Hopefully we will long for great shops like this in every neighborhood.

Liike 51 is located in Vanha Tapanilantie 51, 00730 Helsinki.
And this is their Facebook page.