It's the lunch hour on a cold and blustery Thursday in late January, and more than a dozen customers are wandering the aisles of the soon-to-be shuttered Hull's Family Bookstore on Graham Avenue.
They range in age from preppy-looking high school students to white-haired retirees. Among them were friends and longtime customers Barb Polson and Carol Douglas, who were looking for some books on the Amish for some of Polson's Hutterite friends.
"We read them first," Polson explained, "and then they get passed around the entire colony."
And there were sisters and retirees Bev and Mary O'Neill, who came armed with a list of more than 40 Christian titles -- Hull's specialty is Christian spiritual books, CDs and DVDs -- they hope to add to their home library.
"We like reading," Bev said. "It's something to do in the wintertime."
'During this time frame, the number of customers we serve at our Winnipeg store has been reduced in half. We simply cannot sell enough books to continue...'
"Besides, what's on TV nowadays?" Mary added. "Nothing."
The O'Neills and other longtime customers were drawn to the store Thursday by news that, after 95 years in downtown Winnipeg, Hull's is closing its flagship Winnipeg store as well as a smaller outlet in Thunder Bay.
It's part of radical corporate restructuring made necessary by what the company's owners describe as the relentless erosion over the last 10 to 15 years of their once-thriving customer base by large, online booksellers who are not only fast and efficient, but can sell books at prices that are often below Hull's cost.
"During this time frame, the number of customers we serve at our Winnipeg store has been reduced in half," Margo Smith, who runs the business along with her sister-in-law, Kathleen Smith, said in a recent letter to Hull's customers. "We simply cannot sell enough books to continue our operation as it is."
When the smoke clears next month -- the Thunder Bay outlet is slated to close on Feb. 15 and the Winnipeg store in early March -- all that will remain of Hull's bricks-and-mortar operations is a single store in Steinbach.
"That store continues to thrive," Margo Smith explained in an interview in the bright and spacious Graham Avenue store, which is not only the city's largest retailer of Christian literature and gifts, but also served as a gathering place for Christians, hosting guest speakers and book and CD launches.
The family hopes to use the remaining store as a launching pad for the next phase in the company's history.
"This is really a matter of restructuring and finding the right model and the right size," Smith said. "We haven't ruled out a return to the Winnipeg market with the opening of a new, right-sized store."
Smith said the 6,000-square-foot Graham Avenue outlet is too big and too costly to maintain. If they reopen at a different location, it will likely be in a space half that size.
She said the decision to restructure was a long time in the making, just like the erosion of the bricks-and-mortar bookstore business by online booksellers. She said they noticed the first signs of what she refers to as "the digital revolution" about a decade ago, when their CD sales began to suffer.
"It's an industry issue and almost a global issue," she said of the rising popularity of online retailing and online book buying. "I think most people understand. We are not the first bookstore to succumb to these forces."
Smith said the family hasn't decided yet what it will do with the Graham Avenue building, which was built in 1985 and includes a 3,000-sq.-ft. second floor. They could keep it and rent out the space, or they could sell it.
One veteran commerical real estate agent -- Ken Yee, senior vice-president of Cushman & Wakefield -- said the family will have no trouble finding a buyer or renter for the property.
"It's in a sweet spot," Yee said, noting the building is a block away from both the MTS Centre and the RBC Convention Centre Winnipeg, and within the proposed downtown Sports, Hospitality and Entertainment District.
Asked what type of business could thrive there, Yee didn't hesitate.
Stefano Grande, executive director of the Downtown Winnipeg BIZ, agreed.
"It's so well positioned. It's right in the middle of the SHED, it's got two parkades right next to it... and we're starting to get a real cluster of restaurants in that area," he said. "And when you get a cluster, that creates momentum. So I'd be surprised if it's not a restaurant."
Grande said while he will mourn the loss of a downtown institution like Hull's and avid downtown supporters like the Smith family, "when a door closes, a window opens."