New Indigenous-owned store in Winnipeg aims to answer growing demand for collectibles

For Curtis Howson, what started out as a hobby collecting wrestling action figures back in 1985 has now turned into a full-time entrepreneurial opportunity, with the opening of his store in Winnipeg.

First Row Collectibles, located at 1835 Main St., opened July 1 and Howson said business has been booming.

“Sports cards are always the most popular thing, but comic books, action figures and autographs are really big,” Howson said.

Howson and others say collecting began to rise in popularity again during the pandemic.

Naim Cardinal, a member of Tallcree First Nation in Treaty 8 territory but now living in Kelowna, BC, is a collector and founder of the Indigenous Rookie Cards website that profiles rookie cards for the NHL’s Indigenous stars of past and present.

He said people stuck at home started going through their old belongings and sports cards, “and just kind of rebuilding that nostalgic feeling that people once had about sports card collecting.”

Fred Sasakamoose’s rookie card and autobiography from Naim Cardinal’s personal collection. (Naim Cardinal)

Cardinal also started the movement known as Indigenous Jersey Day, where sports fans wore jerseys of their favorite Indigenous athletes, which fell on May 28, 2021.

Howson and Cardinal identified former Chicago Blackhawk Fred Sasakamoose as an inspiration and each carries a memento of the NHL’s first Indigenous player.

‘Collecting things is just in the blood’

Tyler Lavallee, a diehard Toronto Maple Leafs and Team Canada collector, is from Misipawistik Cree Nation, 393 kilometers north of Winnipeg.

“I wanted to do a Maple Leaf and Hockey Hall of Fame kind of collection, and then when I really got into it, I realized how big the Indigenous community was in collecting,” said Lavallee.

Because of his remote location, the majority of his trading takes place online but Lavallee sometimes travels to other provinces to pick up memorabilia.

The First Row Collectibles storefront on Main Street in Winnipeg. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

Lavallee jokes that collecting is a family trait.

“I remember being at my grandma’s place and she had your little spoon collection, and collecting things is just in the blood,” he said.

Howson relates to that, and thinks about his family home in Crane River, Man., about 230 kilometers north of Winnpeg.

“I’ve seen my whole family collect through the years, maybe cars in the yard. That’s a big thing,” he said.

Howson said he wishes to pass this hobby onto the next generation of collectors. The store has a 1980s arcade style video game customers can play.

“We want young kids to come in, we want them to feel invited because we were those young kids at one time,” he said.

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