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A chapter closes for Paul and Holly McNally, who created Canada's largest independent bookstore

Story of their lives

The circular staircase is one of the signature features of McNally Robinson Booksellers. Holly and Paul McNally officially turned over the store to new owners at the end of October.

WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

The circular staircase is one of the signature features of McNally Robinson Booksellers. Holly and Paul McNally officially turned over the store to new owners at the end of October.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 26/12/2015 (1155 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

It was 1980, and Holly McNally wanted a career change.

Before moving to Winnipeg with husband Paul and their daughters, she had been a social worker in Ottawa. She thought of studying horticulture, but she found the University of Manitoba agriculture programs were more geared to farming.

Around that time, Eaton's department store, once the king of retail in Winnipeg, laid off 25 employees. One was Ron Robinson, the store's book buyer, who was featured in a CBC interview and Winnipeg Free Press article about the layoffs.

Holly and Paul, both book-lovers, saw the article and decided to contact Robinson. Once they'd met, all three felt Holly's determination and Robinson's expertise might be the perfect combination for starting a new enterprise. Though Paul was working as a professor of English at the University of Manitoba, he too would become closely involved.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 26/12/2015 (1155 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The craftsmanship of Paul McNally, an avid woodworker, is present in the panelled walls of Prairie Ink  Restaurant.

WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

The craftsmanship of Paul McNally, an avid woodworker, is present in the panelled walls of Prairie Ink Restaurant.

It was 1980, and Holly McNally wanted a career change.

Before moving to Winnipeg with husband Paul and their daughters, she had been a social worker in Ottawa. She thought of studying horticulture, but she found the University of Manitoba agriculture programs were more geared to farming.

Around that time, Eaton's department store, once the king of retail in Winnipeg, laid off 25 employees. One was Ron Robinson, the store's book buyer, who was featured in a CBC interview and Winnipeg Free Press article about the layoffs.

Holly and Paul, both book-lovers, saw the article and decided to contact Robinson. Once they'd met, all three felt Holly's determination and Robinson's expertise might be the perfect combination for starting a new enterprise. Though Paul was working as a professor of English at the University of Manitoba, he too would become closely involved.

Thirty-five years later, the McNallys have quietly left the book business, officially signing off at the end of October. Chris Hall and Lori Baker, who have been gradually taking over during the last three years, are the new co-owners.

"Building McNally Robinson took us on a dazzling ride," Holly said. "Serious gratifying work and endless fun. It is now time to move on. Our memories are robust and our gratitude is immense."

* * *

The midnight book launch of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix in June 2003 drew a large crowd to McNally Robinson.

MIKE APORIUS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

The midnight book launch of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix in June 2003 drew a large crowd to McNally Robinson.

That dazzling ride began in a River Heights parking lot where the McNallys spent hours watching shoppers come and go. Convinced the location was perfect, they opened their first store, at Kenaston Village Mall, in 1981.

Robinson bought the first shipment of books, established contacts and accounts, and managed the inventory for a year before moving on. The McNallys kept his name to avoid the expense of changing signs and letterhead.

The store soon became the scene of book launches, as the McNallys closely involved themselves with the Canadian writing and publishing scene.

In 1988, the McNallys began a partnership with the burgeoning Manitoba Writers' Guild to present an inaugural Manitoba literary award. The Guild would be responsible for soliciting submissions, picking a jury and publicizing the short list. The McNallys suggested a prize of $2,500 for the best book written by a Manitoban that year — at the time, it was the largest cash award for literature in Western Canada. The first winner was a collection of poetry, Recent Mistakes, by Winnipeg's Jan Horner.

The McNallys' vision soon had an effect on Manitoba publishers.

"There weren't any colour illustrated books about Manitoba before the McNallys opened their stores," said Gregg Shilliday of Great Plains Publishing. "They championed the homegrown histories that we published because they knew Toronto would never do it. They gave us a market."

Said David Carr of University of Manitoba Press: "Holly and Paul had an unflinching dedication to the idea that books are at the centre of our cultural and intellectual life — and especially that local books and writers matter. And they've done this against all odds, thanks to constant innovation, incredible determination and a wonderful staff."

McNally Robinson added a new store in Osborne Village in 1986 and one in Portage Place in 1987. Another store devoted to children's literature opened on Henderson Highway in 1995. As well, the original Kenaston store underwent two expansions. Still, the need to hold readings and book launches was somewhat stymied by a lack of space. Everyone who attended an author event had to stand.

"Serving wine out of a picnic cooler in a crowded store lost its allure," Holly said.

Self-publishers have a place to print their books at the store,  which stocks as many as 750 self-published titles at a time.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Self-publishers have a place to print their books at the store, which stocks as many as 750 self-published titles at a time.

Retailing in the '90s saw outlets evolving into big-box stores. In the U.S., bookseller chains went for mammoth-sized venues that included restaurants and easy chairs where customers could relax and read. Such stores seemed destined to become dominant, forcing independents to scale down and ultimately close.

The McNallys toured many of the major bookstores all over the continent and came home full of ideas and enthusiasm. By the spring of 1996, they knew it was time to go big, so they developed a plan that required them to risk everything.

A 21,000-square-foot store was built, set to open at the Grant Park Shopping Centre in autumn of that year. It was modelled after Denver's beloved Tattered Cover Book Store. There would be 100,000 titles for readers of all ages and tastes, with a combined café and event space, a large selection of magazines and a variety of non-book items, including CDs and DVDs. Canadian books would be emphasized, with a strong representation of local authors.

It opened Oct.15, 1996, the day after Thanksgiving Day, with Canada's best-known writer, Margaret Atwood, in attendance. She read from her novel Alias Grace and tirelessly autographed copies for those of the 1,000 people who wanted one. Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Carol Shields, who lived in Winnipeg in those days, appeared at the opening and chatted briefly with Atwood.

A unique feature of the store was, and still is, the spiral staircase up to a mezzanine called McNally Robinson for Kids. This store-within-a-store offered the city's largest selection of classical and contemporary titles for kids, from cloth books for babies to genre novels for early teens.

"I recall walking into the store for the first time, looking at the curving staircase and row after row of glorious books and thinking, "I'm home!" customer Lisa Sykes recalled. "All three of our kids spent a lot of time in the children's department, and I can still see the transition from carrying them up the curvy staircase, to holding tightly to their hand, nervously watching as they held the bannister and made the climb on their own for the first time, and then watching proudly as they raced up the stairs to start searching for books."

Both the Kenaston and Osborne Village stores closed down the weekend before the Grant Park store opened. Inventory was moved over swiftly — the McNally Robinson venues were dark for only two days. The Portage Place store continued and even expanded, flourishing until it moved to Polo Park in 2008.

In 1998, the company opened a store in Saskatoon, which is still going strong. McNally Robinson for Kids continued on Henderson Highway, but eventually closed its retail operation, became Skylight Books and moved into the wholesale side of the business, dealing with libraries and schools, from a location on Market Street downtown. Other expansions — to Calgary and Toronto — did not fare so well and were closed in 2005 and 2010, respectively. The 2009 economic downturn hurt the Toronto location and Polo Park store, which closed in 2010.

McNally Robinson couldn't escape the economic downturn, having to close its Polo Park location and Toronto store.

DAVID LIPNOWSKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

McNally Robinson couldn't escape the economic downturn, having to close its Polo Park location and Toronto store.

Paul and Holly's love of books extended to their children. Daughter Jennifer ran the kids section of the Toronto store for a short time and now is an editor for Owl Magazine. Sarah opened a bookstore in New York's SoHo district under the McNally Robinson banner but changed the name to McNally Jackson. It is thriving, running events regularly. Tory was a manager in the Winnipeg store, then Calgary and Toronto before leaving to be a mother. Emily has worked in the Winnipeg store, and is now studying law in England.

During the past few years, the McNallys had been winding down their involvement, though Paul, indulging his woodworking avocation, built cabinets for the store, remodelled the restaurant (originally called Café au Livre and now Prairie Ink) and created a classroom.

This last effort — the community classroom —offers courses in everything from First Nations art to conversational French to John Einarson's rock 'n' roll sessions. Ron Robinson has returned to the scene with classes on Sherlock Holmes.

Steve Benstead, the longest-serving employee, calls the store "a miracle on the prairie."

Benstead met Holly at Canada Book Week in the spring of 1983, when he was helping another bookseller. Holly hired him to deal specifically with selling to libraries and schools.

"Our store became the place to be, " Benstead said. "People came not just to browse and attend events but to hang out, to be seen here."

The ambience is often remarked upon by visitors. It is something the McNallys took seriously — so much so that there is a full-time display coordinator for the adult areas and another half-time position in Kids.

One of the store's best customers is Marjorie Poor, who buys about 285 books a year.

"I really do intend to finish most of the books I start, but I read so many at once that some inevitably get put aside until something brings them back to the top of the pile," Poor said. "Starting novels helps me to pay closer attention at readings. I listen more attentively if I've at least entered the world of the material beforehand."

John Toews used to visit the store as a boy and always wanted to work there. He has now been events co-ordinator for five years. Last May, he received an honorary membership in the League of Canadian Poets for his support of poetry.

Toews plans more than 450 events per year. Some come about through contacting publishers when a fairly well-known author is touring the country; most result from publishers and writers approaching Toews. Each writer is different and attracts a different crowd. Toews loves the variety — there have even been launches that involved live owls, falcons and dogs.

McNally Robinson has been supportive of the recent wave of self-published books — they stock as many as 750 titles at a time — and will even design and print your book. Donovan Gray is a local writer whose self-published Dude, Where's My Stethoscope? benefited from a McNally launch and promotion. Dude was on the McNally bestseller list for 26 weeks and was No. 1 for 10 of those weeks.

New co-owners Baker and Hall and staff continue to nurture what the McNallys created: the largest independent bookstore in Canada.

Hall started with the company in 1996. He managed the literature section, and being a self-proclaimed "hands-on guy," he continues to look after that section. Baker started in 2007 as the controller and is responsible for accounting and finance, as well as the restaurant.

Bestselling author Miriam Toews, who now lives in Toronto, once worked in the Winnipeg store. She is forever grateful to the McNallys. "I had kids and no money when Paul and Holly took a chance on me and gave me my first real job in what was one of my favourite places in the world, and after my first book was published by Turnstone, they continued to support the bejesus out of me! And everybody else.

"The book launches, the readings, the tables of books, the displays, the newsletters — the relentless attention they gave to Manitoba authors was absolutely instrumental in building our careers. I am eternally grateful."

 

Dave Williamson is a Winnipeg writer and former dean of business and applied arts at Red River College, where he founded the creative communications program. His most recent books are Dating, a novel, and Changing People's Lives: An Illustrated History of Red River College.

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History

Updated on Sunday, December 27, 2015 at 12:26 PM CST: Images tweaked.

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