Bad News for Calgary


McNally Robinson Bookstore is closing its Calgary store. (link to CBC article) (Herald article)

The company, based in Winnipeg, has sold the historic three-storey building on Stephen Avenue to a land-investment company, co-owner Paul McNally confirmed Thursday. The bookstore said it is not looking for a new location in Calgary. McNally blamed the closure on the costs of real estate in the downtown core, as well as high labour expenses in Alberta's boom. "The value of the real estate over-reaches the potential of the bookselling business," McNally said in a statement. "In an average cost structure, the store would be viable and profitable. In downtown Calgary, not so much."

I am upset about this for so many different reasons. Bookstores have always been sanctuaries for me. They're an escape from my stresses and abundant sources of inspiration. I love the architecture of bookstore interiors, of navigating through rows of shelves. The McNally Robinson store downtown is a very pretty store, with a lovely open feel. It's a surrounding that the books deserve... very unlike the crowded mess of a Chapters.

Back in 2001 or so, when I first heard that the independent bookstore chain was opening a Calgary store, I actually emailed them and requested a good section on graphic design (the Saskatoon store, which I visit every time I go home to see my parents, has always had a great selection, so I was excited to hear that this could be possible in Calgary, too.) They replied to my request and assured me that they would be featuring a nice selection on design and typography. And I wasn't disappointed!

When I opened UPPERCASE in 2005, I was admitedly a bit concerned at how well my books would sell since the much larger McNally Robinson is just half a block from Art Central and UPPERCASE. I purposely ordered books that McNally didn't carry, from smaller international publishers. I didn't want to step on their toes since I was still a loyal customer, regularly buying magazines, business, travel, language, interior and other books. (And I admit that occasionally when I need a break from my work, I put a note on my door, close up shop and spend some time sipping a fruit spritzer in their restaurant.) After a few months of business, though, I realized that we could happily co-exist. In fact, when someone wanders into UPPERCASE carrying a McNally bag, the likelihood that they make a purchase in my shop increases! If someone is looking for a subject that I don't carry or they are visiting from out of town, I always recommend McNally as the perfect destination.

McNally has always been a great location for book launches and literary events — Glen and I were both thrilled that he was able to have the launch of his novel, Correction Road, at the store we love. The store and its staff was also supportive of my publishing venture and carried The Shatner Show book on consignment last summer while I searched for a distributor.

It is shameful that a city as prosperous and populated as Calgary cannot sustain a large downtown bookstore — whether it's a chain or independent. I recall a few outstanding bookstores that have come and gone in the city core such as Bollum's Books, Sandpiper, Books and Books... I mourned their loss as well. I don't know how much real estate prices caused the demise of those stores, but I fear the apathy of average Calgarians was a factor. This city has a wealth of opportunities; it is known for its prosperity and entrepreneurial spirit. But wealth can be squandered and spirits can be broken. One of my first thoughts upon hearing this news was, "I guess we have to move." Glen had a similar reaction. How terrible that the perception of our own city can be so devastated by the closing of a single bookstore.

Of course, we're not going anywhere. I remain excited by the potential of UPPERCASE and have renewed my lease for another five years. I hope that Art Central will thrive with the increasing number of downtown residents and the eventual completion of The Bow across the street. Seeing the benefits of those developments will require patience and perseverence. I will continue to work hard to make UPPERCASE into the little store that could.

I respect McNally Robinson for having the vision to open some remarkable bookstores. In fact, they are expanding into the Toronto-area later this year. I can assume that the decision to close our store was probably a difficult and emotional one for a family-owned company. I appreciate that sometimes, as much as you want things to succeed, the math just doesn't add up. No one likes to admit failure. But the failure of this bookstore is worse than an independent bookstore closing shop: the city of Calgary is failing to nurture its cultural and creative community.

And I'm losing a terrific friend and neighbour. 

(Thanks for your comments and emails about this article. Renata Liwska has drawn the illustration above in response to the news of McNally Robinson's closure.)