Aqua Books to be Reborn? Read on!

From Winnipeg’s Cultural Mayor Kelly Hughes:


Subject: Aqua Books Rises Again. 274 Garry Street in the Hands of the People.
When I realized we were going to have to close, I was hoping people would care. We’ve worked hard over the last twelve years, and I thought it would be nice to be missed and remembered by a loyal few. My worst case scenario was that people would respond with a collective, Too Bad, So Sad. It turns out I was completely unprepared for the outpouring of goodwill. Emails, phone calls, people coming in, people stopping me on the street. You name it. The message was best summed up by a CMU prof when she wrote to me with the simple note: Don’t close, you idiot.

But what to do with all these offers of help? How to filter all the vague/specific/good/bad ideas? How does Goodwill become a Good Plan for moving ahead? I’m sorry if you’ve been one of the hundreds of people wanting answers, and I’ve responded poorly. I’ve been overwhelmed. But it’s slowed down here in the last couple of weeks, and I’ve had a bit of time. I’ve had time to think, and I’ve had a few eleventh-hour meetings. There is now a plan, and if you’re an early riser, you’re among the first to see it. Let’s start with the bad news.

EAT! bistro to Close

EAT! bistro will still be closing, likely at the end of October (although that’s just a ballpark). Away from the daily stresses of owning and running a restaurant, Chef Candace will continue to do some amazing things. When she has firmed up her plans, I will let you know. She and her crack team have done an incredible job, and I know that EAT! will be much missed.

Now the good news.

Aqua Books Will Be Reborn as a Non-Profit

Since we’ve always been the business that thinks like a non-profit, we’re going to pull out all the stops and start to officially not make any money. Winnipeg’s Cultural City Hall Inc. is, as of today, this city’s newest non-profit organization. The new org will continue to do many of the community-based things we’ve already been doing, with artist development and events, and will run a much smaller version of the bookstore. I will remain at the helm, with the support of a very talented board that represents various disciplines and points of view. (We couldn’t find a Tory though. Sorry.) I will introduce our dream team to you soon.

The transition to a non-profit is something we’ve been knocking around for a few years. We already apply for grants for visiting writers and artists (for them, not us), and so many of our decisions are made based on their value for the community, not their value in dollars. That’s why we have such a diversity of programming. (I know, if I was really smart, we’d be playing dance music upstairs, and downstairs we’d have 20,000 copies of The Help and the same amount of Game of Thrones.)

I have had a lot of offers from people who want to help fundraise. You’ll be hearing from us.

Now the million dollar question is, where will we be doing such a thing? Of course, I would love to continue to do these things somewhere in the building at 274 Garry Street. Aside from the fact that I’ve kind of poured my lifeblood into the tumbledown Chinese restaurant, I think people have become quite attached to the old place.

My problem is that I need to pay the bank(s) and everyone else back, and the building is where the money is. I need to sell the building. This has bean very tough for me. The calls that I’ve been getting about buying the building are from national restaurant chains. The building is worth more than we paid for it. We fixed it up. The Jets are back. We can sell it quite easily. Do I follow the money? That’s my best option, but it makes me feel kind of ill. Will you still love me in the morning, if we end up with an Applebee’s or a Jack in the Box at 274 Garry Street? We took a mouse-infested sh*thole and built something unique and wonderful. Can I hand all that work over to the corporate meat grinder? It feels wrong.

This is where the audience participation part happens.

Will 274 Garry Street be Saved?

Many of you suggested a co-op to save the store. Manitoba is the co-op capital of Canada. We love our co-ops. So a working group has been put together to explore the idea of selling shares in a co-op to save 274 Garry from the chopping block. As I said, I need to sell it to someone. I would be so happy to leave it in the hands of the community. Under this scenario, those of you who believe that we have made downtown a better place can get in on the ground floor. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.) Who better to see this great place into the next phase of its life, than the people who actually care about something?

If not enough people care, I will go with Plan B (or C, or whatever). I’ll sell the building to the highest bidder, and we’ll find a new space for Winnipeg’s Cultural City Hall. Aqua Books will go on.

For now, the Save 274 Garry Street co-op working group will proceed and develop a plan, and you can decide. A website will be setup next week with information and progress. The working group is made up of people way smarter than me, so I have faith in them. If you want to drop them a note to let them know you’re interested in how to buy a share or two, the email is. If you’re experienced with co-op boards or management, let us know that too. This is by no means a faitaccompli.

I feel very excited. I’ve already had preliminary discussions with other groups and people that we could share the building with if this plan works. For 274 Garry to succeed as a community venture, it needs to be used by people with values. People more interested in making a difference than making a buck. I would love to see some kind of restaurant or cafe using the space that EAT! will vacate. But restaurants can be tricky, and if a 274 Garry Street Co-op is to work, it will need solid tenants. And Aqua Books would only use half of the building, so there are lots of possibilities for interesting people doing interesting things.

So that’s the deal. And as I say, definitely not a done deal. There’s a lot of work ahead, and it’s going to be all hands on deck.

Twenty years ago, my late brother Brad Hughes created a non-profit called the Winnipeg Cultural Alliance, which was made up of marketing directors of local arts groups. It was relatively short-lived for various reasons (possibly because I was the administrator for it), but one thing sticks in my mind. He had these stupid t-shirts made. Get Pumped on Culture. The graphic was a big heart made up of puzzle pieces. And each of the pieces represented a different artistic discipline. Kind of corny, but very true.

If I can offer my own corny metaphor, I believe that the soul of a community is its creative activity. (I say ‘creative’ because to me that word encompasses all the interesting things that interesting people do.) If that creative life is not valued and nurtured, there is no community. Just a soul-dead locale.

Thank you for making Winnipeg one of the best cities in the world to live. And thanks for not letting me go quietly into the night, but instead harassing me until a plan was born. This is all your fault.

Talk to you soon.


Kelly Hughes
Aqua Books/EAT! bistro
274 Garry Street Winnipeg MB R3C 1H3 204-943-7555

Lindsey Childs

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