In almost any other year, founding an apparel shop dubbed We Heart Winnipeg just before Valentine’s Day would have been seen as a savvy marketing move, akin to establishing a costume retailer in the days leading up to Halloween, or a fireworks outlet ahead of Canada Day.

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This article was published 14/2/2021 (297 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

In almost any other year, founding an apparel shop dubbed We Heart Winnipeg just before Valentine’s Day would have been seen as a savvy marketing move, akin to establishing a costume retailer in the days leading up to Halloween, or a fireworks outlet ahead of Canada Day.

Suffice to say, owners Ryan and Jessica Bowman didn’t exactly draw things up that way.

"We were originally scheduled to open at the beginning of April last year but for obvious reasons, that didn’t quite work out," Ryan says, seated behind their sales counter, the front of which is adorned with their official logo, a stylized heart consisting of two sets of diagonal lines running in opposite directions.

‘PEG OF HER HEART

Winnipeg's urban forest is arguably our most valuable and beloved asset. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press files)</p>

Winnipeg's urban forest is arguably our most valuable and beloved asset. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Emma Durand-Wood is the brains behind Winnipeg O’ My Heart , a stranger-in-a-strange land blog she helped create in 2009, 12 months after she and her husband moved to Winnipeg from Vancouver. (Sample entry from a few years back, when the mother of three tried to wrap her head around the notion of honey dill sauce: "Why would you take three ingredients — honey, mayonnaise and dill — that are delicious on their own and combine them into a creepy-looking sauce?")

Emma Durand-Wood is the brains behind Winnipeg O’ My Heart , a stranger-in-a-strange land blog she helped create in 2009, 12 months after she and her husband moved to Winnipeg from Vancouver. (Sample entry from a few years back, when the mother of three tried to wrap her head around the notion of honey dill sauce: "Why would you take three ingredients — honey, mayonnaise and dill — that are delicious on their own and combine them into a creepy-looking sauce?")

Given the calendar reads Feb. 14, we couldn’t think of anybody better to offer up a Top 10 list of things that make Manitoba’s capital city loveable. Here’s what she had to say:

Seasonal ice cream shops: The traditional Valentine's Day opening for tiny DQs signals the official beginning of ice cream season in Winnipeg... one of our sweetest local quirks.

Toad Hall Toys: Those creaky floors. The endless selection. The feeling of being a kid again. Toad Hall Toys makes my heart swell just thinking about it.

Our trees: Giant cottonwoods. Magnificent Manitoba maples. North America's largest surviving American elm population. Winnipeg's urban forest is arguably our most valuable and beloved asset.

Grassroots groups: Big or little, one-issue or in for the long haul, scrappy and determined grassroot groups (think Millennium 4 All, Vote Open, Mama Bear Clan) make Winnipeg a happier, healthier and more just city.

The Exchange District: Walkable streets, gorgeous architecture, fabulous shopping and the most delightful events and programs. There's no place I'd trade it for.

Food weeks: Delicious campaigns like La Poutine, Hot Beverage, and Le Vegan Week mean there's always a good excuse to feed our insatiable hunger for new and exciting eats — and support local restos.

Pollock's Hardware Co-op: A Main Street institution that's held a place in Winnipeggers' hearts and homes since 1922. Brought back from the brink several times, Pollock's feels like a warm hug from an old friend.

Creative collaborations: Partnerships such as Coal & Canary x Jenna Rae Cakes, Chaeban ice cream using Beeproject honey, and Kilter's coffee stout brewed with Thom Bargen beans are proof that local businesses love each other as much as we love them individually.

Plain Bicycle Project: Spreading life-changing Dutch cycling simplicity and joy throughout Winnipeg, one upright bike at a time.

Local beer: During these pandemic doldrums, little things bring great pleasure. The constant stream of new and inventive brews from our many micro-breweries provides much-appreciated moments of anticipation and enjoyment.

We Heart Winnipeg, 3-660 Osborne St., officially opened to the public during the last week of January, soon after the province announced retailers in southern Manitoba could welcome customers through the doors for the first time in almost three months. The shop, wedged between the Oakwood Café and a take-out pizza joint, stocks the couple’s personal line of T-shirts, hoodies, crewnecks and accessories, every last stitch of which is a homage to the city and province they call home. Ryan promises he’ll try not to come off as cheesy or cliché when, someday down the road, he tells their two-old-daughter Naia the story of how mommy and daddy once opened a non-essential business in the height of a worldwide pandemic.

"I know what people are thinking, why would anybody even want to have a bricks and mortar location in 2021?" he says, pausing to thank a customer who’s just finished paying for a hunter green tuque affixed with a leather patch reading WPG 1873, for the year our fair burg was incorporated. "But if there’s one thing I’ll want our daughter to take from all this, it’s that you should follow your dreams, regardless of what’s going on around you. Because let’s face it, if you look hard enough you’ll always find an excuse not to do something."


In the runup to Christmas the Bowmans shipped their Winnipeg-themed clothing to customers to California, France, Germany, and even Saskatchewan.</p>

In the runup to Christmas the Bowmans shipped their Winnipeg-themed clothing to customers to California, France, Germany, and even Saskatchewan.

Know the Joni Mitchell hit Big Yellow Taxi? The one with the line, "You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone?" Well, in Ryan Bowman’s case, it was more a case of, "You don’t know what you got till you’re gone."

Bowman, in his early 30s, grew up in North Kildonan. After netting an arts degree from the University of Winnipeg, he moved east to Kitchener, Ont., to study journalism at Conestoga College. That was where he met Jessica, a native of Tillsonburg, Ont., a town of 15,000 located 50 km southeast of London.

Following graduation, the pair spent a number of months traversing through Central and South America. During their travels they decided when it was time to settle down, they would do so in Winnipeg, "as people from here tend to do," Bowman says with a chuckle. Except from his vantage point, the city he left in 2010 to head off to college was vastly different from the city he and Jessica returned to, five years later.

"The craft beer scene was the first thing that really jumped out at me. When I left we had Half Pints, Fort Garry and Farmery, but when I came back there were close to a dozen types, which was pretty sweet," he says with a wink. More importantly, he began seeing the city through Jessica’s eyes, and while doing so discovered a variety of places that had been here all along, ones he hadn’t patronized previously or never bothered to investigate more thoroughly.

"One of our first dates after moving back was Mercadito Latino on Sargent (Avenue)," he says. "As I mentioned, we’d just finished backpacking through Latin America and were craving some authentic, Latin food. It’s a place I’d never tried or even knew about before, and it immediately became one of our favourites."

"If there’s one thing I’ll want our daughter to take from all this, it’s that you should follow your dreams, regardless of what’s going on around you. Because let’s face it, if you look hard enough you’ll always find an excuse not to do something.” ‐ Ryan Bowman

He goes on, noting even trips to age-old haunts such as Lockport’s Half Moon Drive In or Sargent Sundae across from Assiniboine Park, spots he’d visited in the past with family or friends, suddenly took on new meaning. "Folk Fest became an annual tradition for us, as opposed to just something to do with buddies on a weekend in the summer," he says.

Wanting to trumpet their affection for the city, they launched We Heart Winnipeg in 2017, the same year they tied the knot. While it commenced as a blog with a mandate of "spreading positivity, advocating for localism and celebrating our city," the ultimate goal was to monetize it in some manner, down the road. They just weren’t sure what that would look like, precisely.

The Bowmans got their answer in the summer of 2019 ahead of Many Fest, an annual, downtown celebration that features music, entertainment and, best of all, food truck wars. They applied for a booth and after being accepted, arrived with their initial clothing design in tow, a line of poly-cotton T-shirts and hoodies showcasing a compass emblem pointed "True North," with the letters WPG underscored by two rippling lines meant to represent the Red and Assiniboine rivers.

The first night of the get-together was a chilly one, Bowman recalls, which definitely worked in their favour. As soon as the sun went down, all those who hadn’t dressed properly for the weather were scrambling for something warm to throw on, resulting in sales of their hoodies going through the roof. "Size, colour, it didn’t matter; people were grabbing ’em as fast as we could pull them out of the boxes," he says.

You can probably guess what happened next. Soon, people sporting We Heart Winnipeg attire were being stopped and asked, "Hey, where did you get that?" all over town. Which in turn led to people reaching out to the Bowmans, who had already established an e-commerce site, which led to them telling themselves, "Hmm, we might just have something here."

Ryan Bowman says they intend to introduce new designs every two months or so and promises a line for the ‘hockey fan in all us’ will debut soon.</p>

Ryan Bowman says they intend to introduce new designs every two months or so and promises a line for the ‘hockey fan in all us’ will debut soon.

One design led to two, two designs led to six (our favourite: the Support Your Local Dog Park collection) so by this time last year, Bowman, who was working full time at another job, decided it was time to "(poop) or get off the pot." "When you’re doing something like we were on a small scale, it’s not sustainable enough to just keep doing what you’re doing," he explains. "I saw the potential to scale it up — the amount of effort I put into the business was commensurate with our revenue — so I figured if I can keep scaling (up) it will work. Like I said, we were set to open April 1. My last day of work was March 20, which was right around that time the province shut all non-essential business down. Pretty good timing, huh?"

There’s an old adage that states everything happens for a reason. That certainly rings true in the Bowmans’ situation. While it is a fact they planned to open a store last spring, that would have been as a three-month pop-up only, located inside an already established business. When the three months were up, a decision would have been made whether to remain there or pick up and move elsewhere. With time on their hands, they began to hunt around for a more permanent solution, somewhere they could put down roots for the long term.

The year before, they participated in a pre-Christmas sale staged in a 500-square-foot area inside the Oakwood Café occasionally used for overflow seating. In May of last year, Bowman contacted the cafe’s owner to inquire if she might consider renting the room out to them. "Definitely," came the response and after working everything out with the property manager, the Bowmans were handed the keys last July.

They weren’t in a rush to open — after all, positive COVID-19 numbers in the city remained low during July, August and into September — so instead they took their time renovating the space, assuring themselves everything would be just the way they envisioned it by the time they welcomed their first customers Nov. 20, the date they selected for their grand opening. Imagine their disappointment when they opened the newspaper Nov. 10, only to learn the government would be shutting down non-essential businesses two days later — for the second time in eight months — to help curb the spread of the virus.

“If there’s one thing that does amuse me, it’s the number of people who claim to loathe living here who continue to do so, or move back to start a family after they’ve been away for a while.” ‐ Ryan Bowman

It wasn’t all doom and gloom. In the build-up to Christmas, during which they offered curbside pickup, they weren’t only contacted by those with a 204 area code, but people from California, France, Germany... even Saskatchewan. Bowman shakes his head when asked if he knows whether everybody was an ex-pat Winnipegger, or simply a person who enjoys Guy Maddin films, or knows all the words to No Sugar Tonight.

"I usually include a thank-you note when I’m mailing something out along the lines of ‘Once a Winnipegger, always a Winnipegger,’ but I probably shouldn’t take that for granted. Who knows? Maybe there are people out there who collect T-shirts from obscure cities, all over the world."

Now that they’re (fingers crossed) fully open for biz, it’s their intention to introduce a new style every two months or so. Next up is a line that will make its debut towards the end of February, one he promises will appeal to the "hockey fan in all of us." They’re also hoping that by the end of June, they’ll be able to do the bulk of the screen printing in-house versus paying an outside source to do that for them.

Bowman smiles when asked if, as the owner of an enterprise called We Heart Winnipeg, he ever grits his teeth like the rest of us when the temperature dips to near -40 C, as it did much of last week, or when he sacrifices a hubcap on his vehicle to a pothole.

"Oh, for sure, but if there’s one thing that does amuse me, it’s the number of people who claim to loathe living here who continue to do so, or move back to start a family after they’ve been away for a while," he says. "I wouldn’t say I hated Winnipeg growing up — I probably took it for granted more than anything else — but I definitely appreciate it more now, having lived elsewhere. Are there problems? Definitely. But there are problems everywhere. I guess from where I sit, I believe there’s been an injection of youth, creativity and entrepreneurship here lately that’s made everything from events to restaurants to cafés world-class. And I only see that getting better."

David Sanderson writes about Winnipeg-centric restaurants and businesses.

david.sanderson@freepress.mb.ca

David Sanderson

Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.