One might imagine the allegorical slamming of a book to coincide with the closing of Aqua Books, a renegade used book store in the city’s centre; its owner Kelly Hughes mentioned the reduction of book sales was a contributing factor for the impending close of this already institutional Winnipeg cultural hub that also sells books. Aqua may have seemed as uniquely isolated as this city feels at times, but the energy the bookstore generated was warming as homey diplomacy and yet just as fierce as the act of creation, which extends to its founding.
Aqua was like a happening from the perspective of life, perhaps less than art, although I will admit I have to restrain my mythologizing tendencies. Happenings were art events that were somewhat improvisational and aimed to break down the imagined or logistical boundaries of the performer and audience. You had a sense in Aqua that there was a balance between work and play; a comfortable decorum and an equally intimate restaurant kept it a potential starving artist refuge. Its design was just crowded enough to feel like an architectural hug, a space you could just as easily disappear into as emerge from, as a famous artist through one of their programs housing in-residence artists. It was a meeting place that did everything from hosting poetry readings to live talk shows. People walked in and out constantly like a movie with multiple reels displaying more than one shot on every square of reel.
As far as conceptual spaces go, if Andy Warhol’s factory had an inferred conveyor belt, it may not have foreseen Aqua in its bifurcations. For it would have had to cross the prairie to a strangely conflicted city with a complex cultural ethos and a humble regionalism and become its other. Aqua extended art in a communal manner that was uniquely resistant to big city elitism — not a huge chain but also not an appropriation of a random old building to justify its collections of dust.
Linking art and activism, what the death of a book suggests, semiotically, is that books are in the world and that the world can be reconstructed through them. The old fashioned book is perhaps slightly more of an archaeological artefact than some writers would want to admit. Indeed every paper book now comes suffused in synaesthesia feel somewhere between a moth, a starched Socratic toga and a consciousness of tangible nostalgia.
Language is contingent on expression however related to its semantics values; texting links convenience and a sense of information distinct from knowledge, and yet books are more than a stilled shot of etymology, as they are infused with a certain greater design. Saying with certainty is perhaps what a book does by its re-emphasis of not changing, things that are endurable, and an old book is even more poignant in preserving the faint — but Aqua was real in many dimensions — even as we hear the liminal closing of a door.
I hope, despite this current loss, that Kelly’s endeavour inspires others to also embark on idiosyncrasy in art. Aqua was like a great artistic experiment and part of a larger cultural barometer that will shift and hopefully produce another space that helps to facilitate culture in a similar (or radically different) way. It lasted long enough to make a mark and was as close to a utopia as one can get in a volatile world.