Aqua Books saved

Aqua Books is set to become a non-profit organization centred on books, community and entertainment, after nearly falling off the Winnipeg map.

The owner of the second-hand book store, located at 274 Garry St., announced over the summer the popular cultural venue would be closing its doors after 12 years.

“We’ve had a great ride, but unfortunately the financial burden has become too much,” Kelly Hughes, owner of Aqua Books, told CBC News in August.
However, Hughes said he felt the announcement sparked a reaction from members of the community who wanted the store to remain open.

“I was surprised at the volume of it,” said Hughes. “It gave me some energy to look at different options.”

Hughes said the decision to go non-profit was an easy one because the idea had been knocked around over the years. In many ways, the store already acts like a non-profit, he said.

“We’ve done a lot of stuff where we lost money, but we thought it was important to do,” said Hughes.

According to Hughes, changing to a non-profit is the easy part. The challenge facing Aqua Books now is to set up a co-op to buy the building.

Hughes said the easiest solution would be to sell the building and remain a tenant, but he is wary of large corporate businesses moving in.

“The problem with that is that the people interested are national chains; [ . . . ] to turn it over to the ‘suits’ was not my first choice,” he said.

Hughes said he feels it is getting more and more difficult for small independent businesses to compete with large chain stores with highly-advertised brands.
“Every time the little guy loses ground, the community loses something and you don’t get that back,” he said.

The new non-profit will still include everything people love about Aqua Books, said Hughes. The venue will continue to host events, have a writer-in-residence program and focus on artist development, with an emphasis on things that support people in the local creative community.

“There are so many people doing interesting things that don’t have a lot of visibility,” he said. “For us, [ . . . ] being able to provide a venue is really rewarding.”
Struan Sinclair, an assistant professor of English and director of the English Media Lab at the University of Manitoba, said the non-profit status will give a welcome boost to an important part of the Winnipeg arts community.

“It’s great news for Winnipeg’s cultural landscape,” he said. “There is tremendous quality and diversity in the arts and cultural scene here, and our cultural communities benefit from strong grassroots support.” 

Sinclair noted independent bookstores are under threat everywhere.

“The best hope for arts-centred businesses is to become destinations: places where people want to be and are loyal to, places where interesting new work gets seen and done, places that belong to the communities they serve,” he said.
Changes to the venue include a downsize of books from 45,000 to 15,000 as well as the adjacent EAT! bistro closing down.

A website for the non-profit will be launched this week to announce the board members and give information about upcoming fundraisers.