Friday, August 12, 2011

Farewell to Aqua Books; a message from Kelly Hughes

Aqua Books and Eat! have reached a sad end.

This letter is from owner Kelly Hughes, which he sent out a couple of days ago. It is something that was written honestly and you can tell this was not an easy decision, or one that Kelly even wanted to make.

Kelly and Candace are two examples of true heroes in Winnipeg. With their hard work, investing not just their money but insane amounts of time and energy, they helped make downtown a place that a lot of us want to spend a lot of time in. Without people like this, local trailblazers, local entrepreneurs, our urban core would be as rotten as it was in decades past. "A tasteless donut" as I described it in my bio, for when Kelly invited me to be a guest on his live talk show, Kelly Hughes Live.

Aqua will be missed. There's just nothing else like it. It wasn't just a book store and a little restaurant. It really was the cultural city hall of Winnipeg, with all the events and promotion that was done for the arts community, it was a magnet for like-minds. There simply is no replacement.

Winnipeg is slightly less rich now without this institution. People with vision and the determination to create something out of nothing are few and far between, and Kelly and Candace succeeded in cementing themselves as part of the fabric that makes up our little prairie community.

Thanks Kelly, thanks Candace.

* * * * *
It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. Anyone who's had a crack at Grade 11 English will be familiar with the first line of A Tale of Two Cities. It also fits as an opener for what I have to tell you, with apologies to Mr. Dickens, and apologies to You.

Candace and I are, quite honestly, pretty devastated to announce that the doors of Aqua Books and EAT! bistro will be closing forever. We 've had a great ride, but unfortunately the financial burden has become too much.

I started dreaming about doing what I'm doing now almost two decades ago. What Candace and I and our team have been able to realize here at 274 Garry Street is exactly what I envisioned. Great books, great food, creative people coming together and sharing their passion, their art and their knowledge. It's the kind of place I would want to go (if I ever had time to go anywhere).

But this dream was a big swing. 8400 square feet in the heart of Downtown Winnipeg (in a rundown old Chinese restaurant) with a bookstore, a restaurant, event spaces, a bar, writers' studios....And if I'm going to continue to work the baseball metaphor, let me also misquote Kinsella: "If you build it, they will come." We built Winnipeg's Cultural City Hall, and they came. You came.

You came, and you made it what it is. And for my part, I've done whatever I had to do to keep the dream alive. And finally, under the weight of too many bills, we've come to the end of the road. (And I'm willing to take responsibility for that. I hate it when a business closes, and it's everyone's fault but their own.) It's good to finally fill you in on the situation. I owe you that much.

It's certainly always been tough to be in the book business, and things have only become more difficult with time. When McNally Robinson closed half of their stores, they named e-books as the big culprit. True, you can't sell e-books unless you're Amazon or Chapters. But folks that are e-reading are still readers reading. They are likely to buy a book now and then.

The real problem with bookselling is something I have alluded to in the last couple of months. It's a cultural shift away from reading. Smart phones, Facebook, and The Internet are all part of what has replaced reading time. I won't beat it to death, but it's an irreversible change in people's habits. You may still read and love books as much as you always have, but you are now in the minority. Book sales here have dropped 30% in the last year. (That's why McNally seems like it's all saltshakers and aprons these days.)

Making the decision to pull the plug has been a tough place for me to get to. Putting Winnipeg's Cultural City Hall together was the biggest, most difficult thing I've ever done in my whole life. I've spent 56,000 hours trying to create and maintain what you see here. It's been tiring at times, even for me. But I feel like Candace and I have created something bigger than ourselves. We've created an artists' village in the heart of Winnipeg that doesn't belong to just us anymore.

Unfortunately, the ultimate responsibility and fiscal load does belong to us alone. But unlike Sysyphus, I can't keep pushing this giant rock up the hill for all eternity. The beige-ification of our communities by corporate money is a steep hill indeed. We have won awards, and mentions in MacLean's and Quill & Quire, and even a few hearts and minds, but turning all of this goodwill into enough cash to support such an ambitious project has in the end eluded me.

I think I've fought the good fight, but we may be heading into a brave new world (look at me and all my book metaphors) where bookstores don't really a have a place. As we go dark, please continue to support the few remaining small ventures and community-based businesses that are holding the tide back. Pollock's Hardware Co-op, Tallest Poppy and Neechi Foods Co-op are just a couple that leap to mind.

Thanks so much to all of you who have supported us over the years. We look forward to seeing you in the next few weeks as we wind down. (More words will follow. Until I tell you different, we will be on regular hours, and all scheduled events will go forward as planned. We want to have more of a wake than a funeral.)

Candace has been pleased to make so many regulars happy, and to help so many people with allergies and food issues feel normal about doing one of the most social things - eating. I think that she would still like to do some catering after this if she has the opportunity.

As for me, I can't express how grateful I am to have met and worked with so many wonderful people. (In truth, even though I seem to be losing my mayoral seat, I'd love it if Winnipeg's Cultural City Hall could outlive Sam Katz's Hall of Horrors. Any ideas?).  Although I'm headed into an uncertain future, I've had a great run - all the way around the bases and back to home.  Not sure what waits behind the plate, but I've had the chance to do, for a moment, what I wanted to do. Not everyone gets to do that.

And I'm happy that what I've wanted to do has also been what so many of you wanted to come and do, too. Thanks for that.


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