Vintage destinations sparkle on new lightrail corridor

Keep an eye out for the weird and wacky signage. Credit: Photo by Linda Koutsky

• Ax-Man Surplus: 1639 University Ave.; Monday–Friday 9 a.m.–7 p.m., Saturday 10 a.m.–6 p.m., Sunday noon–5 p.m. (three suburban locations too, visit

• Russian Piroshki & Tea House: 1758 University Ave.; Friday–Saturday 11 a.m.–3 p.m. (closed Saturdays starting in June) 

As University Avenue eagerly awaits the June 14 lightrail opening, bells are ringing and shiny new trains are testing the tracks. The landscape’s changed considerably between St. Paul’s Union Depot and Stadium Village. Apartment buildings have sprung up; new restaurants opened their doors; buildings have been renovated, cleaned up, or built; some places have been lost; and some things didn’t change at all.

The first time I went to Ax-man was in 1980. I remember I bought a large thin copper sheet, a bunch of resistors and electronic parts I knew nothing about, a couple test tubes, red plaid fabric, and black cord. Why those brain cells haven’t been replaced with something more useful is a testament to why this odd store has been so successful — you will never forget it.

If you make or fix or do anything with your hands you’ve probably been here. Or if you collect military surplus or are into electronics, you know about it too. For the uninitiated — Ax-man is a surplus store. But while most people think a surplus store is being military surplus and camping equipment, at Ax-man it’s more of the dictionary definition: to be in excess of what is needed.

Bins and crates are filled with sunglasses, airline china, bike lights, metal files, theater lights, tape of every width and color, mannequin heads, doll parts, beads, paint brushes, LEDs, microchips, resistors, transistors, motors, wheels of all sizes, wires, clips, cases, boxes, test tubes, petri dishes. Company logos are sometimes printed on items. Stuff might be factory seconds, bought at auctions, or liquidation sales. Jess Liberman founded the store in the 1960s. His photo overlooks the chaotic interior from the far wall. In the true spirit of the store’s ever-changing inventory, he once said, “If you think that you may need it, buy it today! It might not be here tomorrow.”

In 1978 Linda and Nikolai Alenov were two starving artists who noticed women at their church didn’t have any trouble selling Russian foods at bake sales so they decided to open their own restaurant. Nikoli’s father owned a house on University Avenue that worked just fine. They lived upstairs selling the first Russian carryout in the country. Today the second floor has been converted into a dining room. Fill your tray with piroshki (hamburgers in dough pockets), vegetarian borscht, potato-filled dumplings, beef stroganoff, chocolate poppyseed rolls, and classic Russian tea cookies. For years, Nikolai’s brother Pete ran a legendary guitar store on the other side of the house. George Harrison, Eric Clapton, and Bob Dylan all shopped there.

Though parking’s a little tougher these days on University, there’s plenty available on side streets. Both places were busy when I was there on a Saturday. Go now or wait for free rides on the 14th. 

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