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Cotten finds niche selling gifts in Crosslake for 33 years

It all started with selling crafts at an annual event from her home.

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Judy Cotten stands with a popular item - Polish Pottery - in the back part of her store, Judy's House of Gifts, that is part of a second addition made to the Crosslake store in 1999. Nancy Vogt / Echo Journal
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The name “Judy’s House of Gifts” could not better describe the retail store located about a block off the main street running the length of Crosslake.

It’s where Judy Cotten has sold “unique and unusual” gifts for the past 33 years from her store that looks like a cozy house complete with a welcoming front porch.

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Judy Cotten (right) accepts her store's first dollar from Crosslake Chamber of Commerce members in 1988. Submitted Photo

When she decided to open a retail store, Cotten said her family played with possible names for the gift shop. While building the store on County Road 3 in 1987, Cotten’s husband, Jim, came home one day and said he had the perfect name - Judy’s House of Gifts.

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“It’s you. It tells what it is,” Cotten said, quoting what her husband said all those years ago.

The Cottens moved to Crosslake in 1969 with their two young daughters, Donna and Nancy. Judy Cotten said she is from a small town in Michigan, and when her parents moved to the Minneapolis area, she didn’t like the big city.

Jim’s parents had a cabin on Big Pine Lake in Crosslake, and the couple decided to make a move.

“We just liked the area. The people were friendly,” she said. “When I was young I went to a lot of different schools. I didn’t want that for my kids.”

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Judy's House of Gifts in Crosslake is shown Jan. 14 during a snowfall. Nancy Vogt / Echo Journal

A Girl Scout leader, Cotten said all the leaders made crafts and agreed to do a sale together. That led to Cotten hosting a sale over the teachers’ convention weekend in October every year at her Crosslake home.

“People kept saying, ‘Judy, you should to this. You should have a store,’” Cotten said.

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Her daughters were older by then and away at school when Cotten saw a house that was for sale where Frandsen Bank now sits, right next to her location. She put an offer on the home with plans to turn it into a store.

At that time, the Crosslake American Legion was planning to buy the empty lot where she ended up building her store, she said. When that didn’t happen, she thought if her family bought that lot, she could build what she wanted.

That’s exactly what they did, and since Jim was in the construction business, he built the store building. At the time, he was building townhouses at Boyd Lodge in Crosslake, so the store is reminiscent of that look.

“It’s the up north look I wanted,” Cotten said.

Crosslake didn’t have a store selling gifts at the time.

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Judy's House of Gifts on County Road 3 in Crosslake was built in 1987 and was later added onto twice. Submitted Photo

“I was tired of every time I needed a gift, we didn’t have a store in town if you were going to a wedding, to a birthday,” Cotten said, noting she always had to travel to Brainerd for such gifts, or to Pequot Lakes when picking up her daughters from school.

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Judy’s House of Gifts opened in May 1988, and at first was open May-December. When she received frequent calls from customers asking her to meet them at the store and open it so they could shop, she decided to remain open year-round.

The Cottens greatly increased the store’s space with additions in 1994 and 1999. The store is filled with gift items, including clothing, greeting cards, holiday merchandise, jewelry, florals, dishes, prints, linens, collectibles and much more. Cotten said her store offers people a pleasant shopping experience, free gift wrapping and top-notch customer service.

In 2002, Cotten opened a second store, Willow Bay, in the Ace Hardware complex in Crosslake when that store constructed an addition. She began selling clothes and furniture among other items there until 2008, when they sold the space to Ace Hardware and closed Willow Bay.

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Judy Cotten opened Judy's House of Gifts in Crosslake in May 1988. Nancy Vogt / Echo Journal

Cotten plans to “go with the flow” for the future. She still loves her job and, of course, customers bring her the most enjoyment.

“The people - they’re just so friendly,” she said, noting just recently a customer offered to bring her biscotti the next time she makes it.

The past year was definitely different with the COVID-19 pandemic and people staying home.

“Our local people didn’t shop, but we had others who did and that helped a lot,” Cotten said, noting shoppers mostly were from out of state and out of town, and people who came to their cabins in the area.

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This "Shop Local" flag hangs outside Judy's House of Gifts on County Road 3 in Crosslake, just off Route 66. Nancy Vogt / Echo Journal

No matter what 2021 brings, Judy’s House of Gifts will remain open to shoppers looking for gifts.

“I like what I do,” Cotten said.

Nancy Vogt may be reached at 218-855-5877 or nancy.vogt@pineandlakes.com. Follow her on Facebook and on Twitter at www.twitter.com/@PEJ_Nancy.

Nancy Vogt is editor of the Pineandlakes Echo Journal, a weekly newspaper that covers eight communities in the Pequot Lakes-Pine River areas - from Nisswa to Hackensack and Pequot Lakes to Crosslake.

She started as editor of the Lake Country Echo in July 2006, and continued in that role when the Lake Country Echo and the Pine River Journal combined in September 2013 to become the Pineandlakes Echo Journal. She worked for the Brainerd Dispatch from 1992-2006 in various roles.

She covers Nisswa, Pequot Lakes, Lake Shore and Crosslake city councils, as well as writes feature stories, news stories and personal columns (Vogt's Notes). She also takes photos at community events.

Contact her at nancy.vogt@pineandlakes.com or 218-855-5877 with story ideas or questions. Be sure to leave a voicemail message!
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