It’s mid-morning in Iqaluit, and Bryan Hellwig is behind the counter of his cramped and overflowing gallery, haggling briefly with a local artist who’s come in to sell a carving. It’s the kind of scene you’d see at many of the Nunavut capital’s galleries. But Hellwig’s shop is different. Unlike the tidy shops around the city centre, Northern Collectibles is located on an industrial lot toward the airport. It is housed in an equally industrial-looking building, surrounded by boxes and bales of empty bottles and cans. Those would be for Hellwig’s other business, Southeast Nunavut Company Ltd., Iqaluit’s recycling depot for glass and aluminum.
Shortly before the carver arrived on this particular morning, a woman swung through to drop off a load of recyclables. Hellwig paid her in cash (10 cents for each beer or pop can and 25 cents for wine and liquor bottles). He wrote the carver a cheque. “The biggest challenge with both these businesses is cash flow,” Hellwig says. “I have to pay for the product when it lands here.”
Still, it’s business, and Hellwig has been at it for 20 years. Hailing from Niagara Falls, Ont., he landed in Iqaluit in 1986 to work in the kitchen at the Frobisher Inn. He soon felL in love with Inuit and Northern art and, when the World Wide Web came north, started to sell works on eBay to offset the cost of his own collection. He started a part-time recycling depot in the mid-1990s basically as a community service because there was no other place to take cans and bottles.
Hellwig took the leap to full-time art sales in 2007, opening Northern Collectibles at its current location, which also doubles as his home. The shop itself is eclectic and amply stocked, the kind of place where you can’t spot every treasure in a single visit, no matter how hard you try. Above the cash register is a carving of a one-eyed shaman. By the window, a sculpture of a man playing guitar sits beneath a steel model airplane that Hellwig picked up at a Winnipeg antique store. On the floor in the corner, a walrus skull acts as a base for a carved narwhal tusk, a piece by Iqaluit carver and hunter Ben Kogvik. A handful of vintage Hudson’s Bay Company parkas hang by the door, across from a rack of colourfully crocheted Pang hats. Overhead, there’s a dated ’70s-esque light fixture he bought in Germany because it reminded him of Star Trek.
Though small, Hellwig’s cramped gallery has no shortage of merchandise for business travellers and tourists who come in on their way to or from the airport, or for locals who wait to score big at an annual sale Hellwig holds over the winter holidays to reduce stock. “It gets pretty crowded in here,” he says. And that’s not only because of the art. Recycling takes up space, too. Lots of it. Hellwig pays out about $3,000 to $4,000 a week for returns on the recycling side and averages around a million cans a year that are crushed and cubed to be shipped out once a year for their aluminum value.
But it’s art that he’s most invested in. “I have a passion for it. I always have, probably always will.” Still, passion doesn’t pay the bills, he says. It’s a niche market, and only honed hustling skills and an entrepreneurial spirit keep the doors open at Hellwig’s gem of a gallery-depot. “I take a risk to buy (each piece). Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t,” he says. “Sometimes it sits for a while but eventually everything does sell.”