Winnipeg's Old World Charm

By Richard White, December 16, 2014

One of the things we loved when travelling recently in Italy, was the abundance of artisans and small craftsmen with studios on the street - everything from furniture upholstery to musical instrument repair.  It was a constant reminder of the past when people fixed things rather than just throwing them away; a time when things were handmade vs. mass-produced. 

Certainly, one of the cultural differences between Europe and North America is our relationship with objects.  You are hard pressed to wander the streets of Europe without being reminded of the sense of craftsmanship, be it the construction of buildings or the creation of handmade fashion items. That’s not the case in most North American cities.

On a recent trip to Winnipeg, I was delighted to discover a little of that city’s old world charm.

We met this happy couple in Florence. They had a leather shop at the end of the block where we were staying. I saw a belt in the window I liked, but they didn't speak English, nor did I speak Italian.  Luckily there was a lady in the shop who did speak some English and I got my belt. 

We met this happy couple in Florence. They had a leather shop at the end of the block where we were staying. I saw a belt in the window I liked, but they didn't speak English, nor did I speak Italian.  Luckily there was a lady in the shop who did speak some English and I got my belt. 

We passed by the shop several more times during our visit and we always stopped in to say Hi. They were always busy, but still they had big smile for us.  

We passed by the shop several more times during our visit and we always stopped in to say Hi. They were always busy, but still they had big smile for us.  

Wilder Goods

One day, I decided to check out Winnipeg’s West Broadway district, my old stomping grounds back in the mid’70s. After wandering for a bit (loved Zed books, Stella’s Café & Bakery and the Salvation Army Thrift store), it was time for coffee and perhaps some work on my laptop.  I was intrigued by Thom Bargen Coffee & Tea shop, which just happens to feature Calgary’s own Phil & Sebastian coffee.  However, not finding any free Wi-Fi, there I was ready to leave when I fortunately noticed what looked like another shop at the back.

Wandering up the stairs, I discovered a showroom of handmade leather bags, belts and leather accessories.  Behind it, was a backroom with two young guys in aprons surrounded by sewing machines and other gadgets. My curiosity was aroused. Soon Brendon Friesen and Nate Bezoplenko were chatting with me about their thriving business called Wilder Goods.

Utilizing a small backspace (it might be 500 square feet), that the Thom Bargen café wasn’t using, these two, self-taught craftsmen created a workshop which supports both of them working full time. They advertise on Instagram and sell via their showroom – old world meets new world!

The day I was there they were making denim aprons on spec from an end bolt of a 40- year old fabric sourced from one of Winnipeg’s historic fabric warehouses. They were both confident they could sell all the aprons they would make (I subsequently learned they made a limited run of 10 aprons and sold all of them in days to local chefs, a mosaic artist and Christmas presents for spouses).

When asked what was the weirdest thing they had ever made, they quickly said “a denim canopy for a 30ft by 16ft geodesic dome for a mobile performance venue for the Riel Gentlemen’s choir

Brendon and Nate’s creativity and enthusiasm was very refreshing, arguing well for the idea that old mid century urban spaces do indeed have a future, especially if they are not renovated into upscale franchised café and shops. It also supports the idea that more affordable cities are a haven for the young creative class.

Find out more about Wilder Goods at wilderwpg.com

 

Wilder Goods workshop with one of the denim aprons. 

The showroom.

The showroom.

The boys and their best friend.

Eric Shoe Repair

Brenda first discovered Eric in a non-descript ‘60s strip mall on St. Mary’s Road in Winnipeg’s St. Vital community, back in September when she needed her brother’s shoes fixed. Backstory: her brother has hard-to-fit feet so when you find a pair of shoes that fit him, you buy them.  In this case, they were actually new, “steal of a deal” leather shoes that fit but had a flaw, so she brought them to him with the hope they could repaired.

She learned of Eric Shoe Repair from the shoe salesperson at the nearby Hudson’s Bay department store at the St. Vital Mall where she had bought the shoes. After showing the problem to him Eric said “No problem. When do you want them?” And just a day later they were “just like new” for a mere $5.

Then, on our December trip to Winnipeg, we spent a whole afternoon footwear shopping with her brother; this time for new winter boots. We eventually found some that fit.

But given the old boots were in good condition, except for the tongues, Brenda decided to see if Eric could fix them so he’d have a “spare pair.” Both mesh-type tongues were being pretty much torn to shreds. Eric again said “no problem” explained that he would replace them with matching brown leather tongues, even showed her the leather he would use and what the cost would be and then asked, “When do you need them?” It was late Thursday and we were on a tight schedule, but he was even willing to come in on Sunday if need be to have them ready for first thing Monday morning, before we had to head back to Calgary.

This visit he also showed us that he makes moccasin-type boots and was quick to show off the ones he was wearing and another pair he had just completed.  On the back of his business card it says special prices for bikers and even includes a photo of leather chaps – Eric is full of surprises!

Who knew that in a little space of no more than 300 square feet in a North American suburb someone could create a thriving business using century old skills.

Eric's crowded workshop.

Eric showing off his new boots.

Eric showing off his new boots.

A sample of custom boots Eric made for a customer. 

A sample of custom boots Eric made for a customer. 

Last Word

Everyone knows that Winnipeg is home to one of North America’s best early 20th century historic districts – The Exchange.  However, there are examples of old world charm across the city (and most cities if you look for them) and when you find one, there is something fun and refreshing about buying directly from an artisan. 

Cities need to find ways to preserve and foster street level workshops and studios, as well as independent shops and cafes, for those like Brendon, Nate and Eric are part of the diversity that creates urban vitality.  

If they can do it in the old world, certainly we can do it in the new world. 

 

Getting my custom belt fitted in Rome's Monti district. This store was actually a warehouse where belt-makers come to get their supplies - everything from dyes to buckles. The green boxes in the background are full of different buckles. 

Getting my custom belt fitted in Rome's Monti district. This store was actually a warehouse where belt-makers come to get their supplies - everything from dyes to buckles. The green boxes in the background are full of different buckles.