Sunday, August 14, 2011

Reprint: Turning the last page

Turning the last page
Customers mourn demise of Aqua Books

Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
by Ariel Gordon

Sad news for bookish people this week.

On Thursday, Kelly Hughes announced the bookstore and restaurant he and his wife own at 274 Garry St. would be closing, saying, "the financial burden has become too much."

Aqua Books housed more than 40,000 used books and hosted up to 400 events a year, everything from book launches to fringe plays to jazz shows to something called a "puppet slam." In addition to having a nut-free menu, EAT! bistro had vegetarian, vegan and celiac-friendly options and chef Candace Hughes did all her own baking.

Left to mourn is avid reader Louise Jones, who discovered Aqua when it was on Princess Street.

"I stumbled on Aqua Books by accident and was quite delighted with what I saw -- I love old buildings, old books, old furniture," says Jones. "I went back again and again and always found something of interest and the prices didn't hurt, either. When he finally unveiled the new store, I liked what I saw there, too.

"I like that there are chairs to sit on if I want to relax for awhile and read the latest treasure that I found in the stacks. The food in EAT! bistro is good, the coffee is delicious, and the atmosphere is peaceful and cheerful (love the decor!). What am I going to do for cupcakes now? I've been to the other bookstores, used and new, and there's nothing like Aqua - Kelly put his whole personality into it and it shows."

Heather Leask Armstrong, a librarian at Carman Collegiate, is another longtime customer.

"As a librarian, I was aware of Aqua Books before Kelly and Candace made the move to their current location and frequently used Kelly's expertise to source low-cost, high-quality and often difficult-to-find books," notes Armstrong. "But as a freelance writer and a closet poet and fiction writer, Aqua Books was way more than a bookstore to me. Aqua Books also became the place where I got to meet my favourite authors and discover new authors... I wrote the first draft of a teen novel under the inspiring tutelage of Aqua's first writer in residence, Anita Daher. It was at Aqua that I read a poem in front of a roomful of strangers for the very first time.

"It was at Aqua that I felt comfortable hanging out with strangers and new friends, whether at Kelly Hughes Live, eating at EAT! bistro or taking part in a writing workshop. To tell you the truth, Aqua and the creative energy that exists there even got me through a pretty dark time in my life."

Also grieving is Allison Norris, who has celiac disease.

"I received phone calls from friends and several co-workers at the office alerted me as soon as they found out Aqua Books and EAT! bistro were closing," says Norris. "Everyone who knows that I can't have gluten also knows how much I value what EAT! bistro has done for people with celiac disease. At EAT! bistro I don't feel isolated by my plate and no one at the table feels it necessary to apologize for eating their food; I can once again take for granted the experience of sharing an entree or dessert with family or friends and dining out becomes a enjoyable social activity rather than a challenge to Frankenstein menu items and an exercise in my trust of a kitchen's understanding of my disease."

But losing a favourite restaurant isn't Norris' only concern.

"I've gotten to know both Kelly and Candace and the rest of the staff and that makes the closure difficult on a personal level, but as a downtown resident, I'm concerned that such a unique business will close its doors. It is a tremendous loss to the downtown and arts community."

Customers aren't the only ones who are feeling the loss of Aqua Books and EAT! bistro.

Mel Marginet is an actress and the co-founder/artistic head of theatre company Theatre by the River, which mounted a production of Judith Thompson's play Habitat there in May 2010.

"I was devastated when I read that the store was closing," says Marginet. "There is no other venue for artists like Aqua Books. From theatre, music, comedy, poetry... so many artists have found a place to perform. It's a space that creates a great environment for artistic events: a central location, a place where the audience can eat and have a drink and a quirky, fun space.

"Kelly is an arts ambassador and will work with you and your budget to make the space work. Kelly and Candace have set the bar high with Aqua Books and EAT! bistro, and I don't know how anyone could ever fill their shoes."

No one is sure when Aqua Books and EAT! bistro will close their doors. They've pledged to honour their commitments until the end of September. But after that, no one knows.

Ariel Gordon is a Winnipeg writer and former employee of Aqua Books.

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