Exchanging Words with Apartment 521

Exchange District BIZ Blog

Whether you’re looking to recreate the offices of Sterling Cooper from Mad Men season one or you’re on the hunt for that beautiful end table your grandmother had in her Charleswood bungalow, Apartment 521 is your first stop. Located in the Exchange at 521 Hargrave Street (just above Western Paint), Nilton Branco’s shop specializes in refinished pieces from the mid-century, as well as custom built work that resembles the classic modern era.

“It was always a hobby of mine, just to kind of of pass time,” Branco says while seated in one of his vintage chairs. “My son would be at home and I’d be in the garage tinkering around. I was always buying a piece of furniture for myself… loving it, living with it, and then finding something else, so I would sell the previous piece. All of a sudden, wow, I just made $200. I kept doing it while still working my full time job. It grew into a passion that I still love today.”

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Branco spent time working as a project manager and sales distributor for a flooring company before committing to Apartment 521 full time in April of last year. It was a quick turnaround to open the space in July, but Branco is always up for a challenge. Being open Friday and Saturday (and by appointment during the rest of the week) allows him the freedom to spend his days hunting for new pieces and refinishing them.

“I’ve spent up to four hours on one piece knowing I would never make my money back, but having to see it through,” he says. “It becomes less about money and more about the passion of bringing that piece back to life and that’s what I like to see.”

That passion for the piece transfers over to the people purchasing it. Branco says there’s nothing quite like seeing the look on someone’s face after he’s given new life to their classic couch or table.

“Someone will come to me and ask me to restore a chair that’s been in the family for over 50 years, and it’s an honour,” he says. “That feeling you get when you present it to them is priceless.”

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Outside of vintage lovers, his clients also include fellow Exchange District businesses such as the area’s newest craft brewery, Little Brown Jug. Those chairs you’re enjoying a pint of 1919 Belgian Pale Ale on were re-upholstered by Nilton Branco.

“I’ve always loved the Exchange,” Branco says. “I love the feel, the vibe and there’s always something going on, especially in the summer. I always knew Apartment 521 was gonna be in the Exchange, I just didn’t know where until I talked to Paul (Schimnowski at Western Paint).”

Branco notes he occasionally works with his neighbourly paint store to finish up projects he’s behind on.

“I still have the issue of deciding if (a vintage piece is) too far gone or not,” Branco says. “There’s some projects I buy that I regret, but I still have to see it through. If I can’t, I always have Western Paint to help me in their spray booth. So if there’s something I can’t handle, I hand it off to them. They do a lot of refinishing, restaining, kitchen repairs, furniture restoration. When I decided to do Apartment 521, (Paul) was the first one I approached, and he immediately fell in love with the idea. I was very lucky, it’s a beautiful space that works well with the furniture.”

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Outside of the Exchange, his work has also appeared at Thom Bargen, Eph Apparel, and at a gala for the Royal Winnipeg Ballet. It’s even popped up on screen.

“The first film I was a part of was Lovesick, and that was an amazing experience,” he says of working on the recently released romantic comedy starring Jay Baruchel and Jessica Paré. “It’s cool to watch the movie and spot my piece.”

While the walls of Apartment 521 feature the work of such local artists as Justine Barry and Manny Martins-Karman, the day-to-day is a one-man operation. Branco has goals to bring in another employee or two in the distant future, but that would only be so that he can focus more on building, refinishing, and hunting for the next great piece.

“I’m pretty stretched out but I’m not complaining,” he says. “ If I start pushin’ snooze, I’m doing something wrong.”

For more information, visit @apartment521 on Instagram.