If you haven’t visited Western Paint at 521 Hargrave St. in the last, oh, 100 years, you may not recognize the joint.
The family-run operation, which opened on Smith Street in 1908 before relocating to its long-standing digs in the Exchange District three years later, recently underwent a bit of an overhaul.
Two months ago, Paul Schimnowski, 71, who succeeded his father, Jack, as owner 35 years ago, shifted the store’s extensive paint and paint-supply division over a few metres, to a space formerly occupied by workers’ desks and such. That paved the way for a new, 3,000-square-foot showroom fully stocked with live-edge, wood furniture built by Rob Sargsyan, a Headingley-based artisan originally from Eastern Europe.
While some might wonder what a company that has been in the paint game for 114 years is doing peddling tables and chairs, Schimnowski explains it’s simply a matter of moving with the times, a lesson he learned from his dad, who learned it from company founder Ernest Guertin.
These aren’t the “good, old days” when Western Paint’s sole competition was other paint stores, says Schimnowski, who lives with his wife on the top two floors of the four-story building, recognizable by a colourful mural on a south-facing wall that reads, “The painter’s supply house since 1908.”
“Now that a person can buy paint wherever they go, pretty much, we have to come up with different ways to get them through the door,” he says, mentioning he fell in love with live-edge furniture during a trip to Texas seven years ago, and started thinking about partnering with Sargsyan in January, when he first became aware of his talent.
“So far, so good,” he continues, seated in his second-floor office, directly adjacent to one occupied by his daughter Jennifer Schimnowski-Fredrickson, who is also heavily involved in the day-to-day affairs. “We haven’t held an official, grand opening for the showroom yet, but we’ve already sold a few pieces.”
Ernest Guertin, the posthumous recipient of a 2021 Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters Award, was born in Montreal in 1878. He was in his early 20s when he moved to Winnipeg to work at an artist-supply store called P.D. Dodds, located directly across the street from what is presently the Marlborough Hotel. According to a 1958 Free Press article toasting Western Paint’s 50th anniversary, Guertin scraped together every penny he could to buy P.D. Dodds in 1908, after learning it was set to close.
That same report touched on how Guertin quickly became a familiar figure in the downtown core, where he routinely rode his bicycle to and fro, dropping off orders and collecting for past sales.
The way Schimnowski understands the story, his father was strolling past Western Paint one morning in the late 1930s when Guertin, a cousin of his, called out to ask if he was interested in coming to work for him. The elder Schimnowski didn’t know a lick about paint — he was a tobacco salesman at the time, his son says — but replied, “Sure, why not?”
Following Guertin’s death in 1953, Jack Schimnowski, a St. Boniface alderman from 1952 to 1958, took over as owner along with Gus Coté, another longtime, Western Paint employee. Guertin, who never had children of his own, had put a provision in his will that permitted the pair to buy the business from his estate, at fair market value. (Back then, the name Western Paint was definitely apropos; the company regularly mailed merchandise catalogues across the Prairie provinces, and contractors from Thunder Bay to Edmonton made the store their first stop whenever they travelled to Winnipeg.)
Paul Schimnowski chuckles when asked how he got involved in things. He was a 17-year-old high school student when his dad, who bought Coté’s share in the mid-1960s, spotted him walking down the street one afternoon, when he should have been in class. His father rolled down a car window to inquire where he was going. He wasn’t feeling well, he told his dad, and was headed home. One problem: their Niakwa Park abode was in the opposite direction from where his feet were pointed. (He may or may not have been on his way to a nearby pool hall, he says with a wink.)
“That’s it,” his father huffed. “Tomorrow you’re coming to work with me.”
“That’s how it all started,” he says, leaning back in his chair. “The next morning I was in the shipping and receiving area in the basement, making 35 bucks a week. I’ve been here, ever since.”
There have definitely been a few ups and downs through the years, Schimnowski allows, noting his father, a larger-than-life character who was rarely seen without a lit cigar dangling out of his mouth, died in 1991, four years after retiring.
Western Paint carried close to 10 different lines of paint at one point, something that set the store apart from the pack. Except when producers such as Sherwin-Williams and CIL began opening outlets of their own in the 1980s, that number was greatly reduced, which had an adverse effect on sales. (Just last week a customer replied, “No, for real?,” after asking how long Western Paint has been selling Benjamin Moore products, only to be told, “Since 1908.”)
As well, the store used to boast the largest selection of wallpaper in Western Canada — the Schimnowskis even opened a satellite location on King Edward wholly devoted to wall coverings — but the rising popularity of accent walls and painted borders ultimately spelled the end of that.
Also, don’t get Schimnowski started on faux finishes, a trend that saw paint applied minimally with a sponge or rag to give a surface a streaked look, thus requiring far less paint than a typical job.
“You’d spend an hour explaining how it’s done, and they’d leave with one can instead of two or three,” he says, shaking his head. “But like I said earlier, we’ve always tried to adapt to changes in the industry, which was the reason we invested $100,000 in a state-of-the-art spray booth about 15 years ago, which now employs three people full-time.”
Schimnowski and his daughter were definitely paying attention at the onset of COVID-19, when consumer experts predicted demand for home products such as paint would go through the roof if the pandemic lasted longer than a few months. They pre-ordered as much as possible, which meant when satins, semi-glosses and various sundries were suddenly hard to come by in the fall of 2020, their shelves remained full.
“COVID has really made a lot of people suffer but it’s been different for us,” he says. “Last year (2021) was actually our best year, sales-wise, ever.”
In addition to catering to people who have fond memories of shopping at Western Paint with their parents or grandparents, and now show up with their own kids in tow, Schimnowski also welcomes members of the city’s film community, who routinely pop by when they’re building sets for this or that movie.
For example, if you’re a fan of the umpteen Hallmark Christmas features that have been shot in and around Winnipeg in the last several years, that’s almost always his store’s paint playing a supporting role in the background. If you’re more into chiller thrillers, the producers of Violent Night, which finished shooting in the city in late March, went shopping at Western Paint, too. When that flick hits the screen later this year, that will be the store’s paint, albeit blood-spattered, you’ll be able to spot in certain scenes.
As proud as he is of all that, Schimnowski derives more pleasure from knowing the business is in great hands, if he ever decides to cut back on his near 60-hour work week. Not only is his daughter in the fold, so is a 24-year-old granddaughter.
“That’s five generations, so yeah, definitely something that puts a smile on my face,” he says.
Finally, if you need some expert advice the next time a room at home needs a fresh coat, you’re probably smarter to ask his better half.
“My wife is far and away the better painter, though she has her suspicions I do a bad job on purpose — the same as with barbecuing — to get out of doing it, period. Not that it’s ‘worked’ yet, ha ha.”
David Sanderson writes about Winnipeg restaurants and businesses.