Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

When one door closes

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For Margo Smith, co-owner of Hull's Family Bookstore in downtown Winnipeg, the main goal now that the store is closing is to "end well."

"I've seen stores like ours end badly," she says of how some other Christian bookstores have dealt with closure.

"I don't want my staff to show up one morning and find the doors locked."

To avoid that, Smith sent a note to customers in January announcing that the 95-year-old company will close its Thunder Bay store in February, and the Winnipeg location in March. The Steinbach store will stay open.

While there are a myriad of details to take care of right now, her main concern "is to take care of our staff and customers."

"The thing that means the most to me is the people," she says of the 24 staff and the thousands of customers who have patronized the store over the decades.

Saying goodbye will be hard, but in the end there was no way around it -- the business simply wasn't sustainable.

The past 10 to 15 years has brought a "tsunami of change" to the publishing and book selling industry, she says, listing things such as the digital revolution, the rise of online sellers, competition from big-box stores and a drop in sales of Sunday school curriculum.

As recently as three years ago, she was hopeful the stores could survive by offering a wider range of products and more personalized service.

But it wasn't enough; the number of customers at the Winnipeg store kept falling. She knew the writing was on the wall.

When some customers got the news, they pleaded with her to keep the store open. She wished she could; she knows that for many people, Hull is more than a store -- it's a place of solace, peace, knowledge and friendship. "But I couldn't hang in there and go bankrupt," she says.

While she's sad to see the store close, Smith understands and accepts the changes in the marketplace.

"I'm not a Luddite," she says of how the Internet has changed the book business. "There is a lot of good about it."

But along with the many gains from the Internet comes losses, too. And one of the things that is being lost are bookstores.

"I believe in market forces," she says of how many people today prefer to buy things online. And if, one day, those same market forces decide that the in-store experience is really worthwhile, "it will come back."

But if that happens, Smith won't be there to greet those returning customers; she's looking ahead to the next stage of her life and career.

As for the past 18 years of owning Hull's, she's glad she was part of that experience.

"It wasn't just a business, it was a ministry," she says of how Hull's sought to serve the whole church by offering "thoughtful books" that promoted "all the richness that Christianity has to offer."

And although she is sorry to see the Winnipeg and Thunder Bay stores close, as a person of faith she has a sense of peace.

"Being a Christian doesn't make this any easier, but it does make it easier to understand," she says. "God has my back, and I don't have to worry about being in control of everything.

"I don't know what God's purpose is in all this, but I trust him," she says of the closing. "God is always doing new things, and I want to be open to it."

In the letter to customers about the closing, she wrote that "nothing changes the legacy of Hull's, the work of God through books and your participation in that. We celebrate you, our customers, our shared experiences at Hull's, and the serendipity of the Spirit, when the right book at the right time with the right word has changed a life... thank-you, from the bottom of our hearts."

jdl562000@yahoo.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 22, 2014 D15

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