Hey there, time traveller! This article was published 28/2/2016 (1829 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Earlier this month, a Free Press article cited the Top 10 restaurants in Winnipeg according to the Culture Trip — an international blog billed as "the best of culture, art, food and travel."
The rundown listed many of the usual suspects such as 529 Wellington, Fusion Grill and Resto Gare. But one pick — the Neighbourhood Bookstore and Café, which was lauded for its "eclectic selection of books and excellent coffee" — left a few people scratching their heads, including the Wolseley-area hub’s owner.
"This is a complete surprise (because) we’re not really a restaurant," Bill Fugler said, when he was informed his laid-back locale made the culinary cut.
'We'll put two or three people together, they'll begin chatting and realize they've lived on the same block for years and have never met'‐ Bill Fugler
"It’s wonderful to get the attention, but we make a small batch of sandwiches and onigiri in the morning, along with a pot of soup, (and) if it’s still in stock, you can get it. The rest of (our) food comes from local bakeries such as Tall Grass (Prairie Bread Company), Jonnies (Sticky Buns) and De Luca’s.
"I’d hate to disappoint people who want a restaurant experience, (but) we don’t have the staff or the equipment to do that. We don’t even have a stove or microwave."
Fugler was born and raised in Montreal. He was an instructor at John Abbott College when he accepted a position as writer-in-residence at the St. Norbert Arts Centre in 1992. He planned on returning to Quebec when his term was up, but Winnipeg won him over, one paddle stroke at a time.
"I was living in a co-op on Wellington Crescent, on this beautiful space right on the river," he said. "We had canoes attached to the house that we could use whenever we wanted to. I’d be out paddling in the centre of a city in this park-like atmosphere thinking, ‘This is incredible.’ It really made me fall in love with the city."
By 2005, Fugler was a married father of two, living in a home on Arlington Street, south of Portage Avenue. One afternoon, he was out for a stroll when he spotted a sign in the window of a mothballed laundromat at 898 Westminster Ave. that read, "Thanks for 16 years of business. If you forgot your pants, give us a call."
Fugler, who was teaching ESL courses at the time, got in touch with the proprietor and asked him what he was planning to do with the building. The fellow said he didn’t have a clue because there was zero interest in the space. Fugler’s next question was, "How much?"
"I wasn’t even thinking about starting my own business — it was completely on a whim," said Fugler, who purchased the property the next day after talking it over with his wife (now his ex). "But a bookstore was something I’d wanted to own since I was a kid, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity."
Fugler decided on a bookstore/coffee shop hybrid a couple of weeks later, while he was taking a break from renovations. Perched on a chair in what is now his patio area, he watched the flow of foot traffic along Westminster, noticing how often people ran into somebody they knew and proceeded to stand on the sidewalk for 30 minutes or so, immersed in conversation. His part of town doesn’t really need another bookstore. It already had Prairie Sky Books down the street, he thought to himself. What it did need, he figured, was a comfortable place where people could idly hang out and catch up with their friends and neighbours.
The changeover took about a year. While his then-wife planned the menu — "She’s an amazing cook, and it was great she got so much appreciation here for her cooking" — Fugler, already an avid reader, went on a book-buying spree, hitting garage sales and flea markets all over the city. He laughed when he recalled how he would cart dozens of boxes home, only to be told by his wife, "Get those books out of the porch." So he’d haul them to the store, where his contractor would say, "Get those books out of the office."
The Neighbourhood Bookstore & Café opened in September 2006. Because seating is limited — and because customers tend to "camp" — Fugler instituted an edict early on stating, "Good neighbours share tables."
"Let’s put it this way," he said. "If you’ve been sitting here working on your computer nursing a single cup of coffee for a couple of hours, that’s OK. But if we need the space, we’re going to join you up with somebody else who’s doing the same thing. What’s funny is how many new friendships have started that way. We’ll put two or three people together, they’ll begin chatting and realize they’ve lived on the same block for years and have never met."
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Even if you haven’t set foot inside the Neighbourhood, you might recognize it. The café has guest-starred on the television series Sunnyside. It also served as the backdrop for a Romi Mayes video — Devil on My Shoulder — and has been featured in a number of movies, including Path of Souls, starring Adam Beach. Winnipeg writer Sue Sorensen mentions the joint five times in her 2011 work, A Large Harmonium.
"I wasn’t even aware how often I used the café as a setting until you asked... it’s even more omnipresent than I realized," said Sorensen, an associate professor of English at Canadian Mennonite University. "The Neighbourhood is a very ‘Winnipeg’ place for me. It’s relaxed and real and comfortable (and) not part of a chain. In my novel, conversations between friends are really important, and I wanted to foreground how the best conversations happen: naturally, unpretentiously and in person.
"To have a proper conversation you need to look at someone, and the Neighbourhood is full of people talking with and actually looking at their friends. So simple, but so amazingly important."
For the first few years, Fugler divided his time between teaching and running the café. But after falling asleep in class one too many times — students would be giving speeches, and he’d be nodding off at his desk because of late nights at the café — he decided to close the book on his academic career and manage the biz full time.
"The thing is, you don’t do this to get rich," he said. "You do it because you love doing it, which I definitely do. I see myself doing this forever, really."
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There are some people who think the books on the shelves at Neighborhood Bookstore & Café are purely ornamental, but owner Bill Fugler said that’s definitely not the case.
“Eighty per cent of our business is the café side of things, and 20 per cent is books, and it’s been that way since we opened,” said Fugler, who instructs his staff to ensure tables and chairs are at least three floor tiles away from the books, which are shelved according to genre, to facilitate browsing.
“I like to think of us as a book orphanage. We connect books to the people who want to read them,” said Fugler, whose own tastes, reading-wise, are “all over the map.”
“One of my favourite things is people who pop in for coffee and tell me they haven’t read a book in years. But after sitting here, staring at the titles on the wall, it makes them want to start again. They’ll buy a book, take it home, and the next time they come in, they’ll say, ‘Thanks, I didn’t know how much I missed reading.’”