Winnipeg’s Wollesley Neighbourhood
North of the Assiniboine River and south of Portage Avenue in Winnipeg, Wolseley is the kind of neighbourhood Winnipeggers either love or hate. Hate it, and they’re bound to describe it with words like “granola cruncher,” or “patchouli”; love it, and they’ve probably already moved there. Amidst the old elms and three-storey, century-old houses sits a one-storey brick building with a patio and a hand-painted sign reading “The Neighbourhood Bookstore and Café.” Here, you can find a cup of coffee, Japanese snacks, your neighbours chatting over a piece of pie, and, more often than not, several of the books you’ve been thinking of reading but hadn’t gotten around to yet. If you manage to get out of there without a pile of them under your arm, you’re made of sterner stuff than I.
Since it opened in 2006, The Neighbourhood’s welcoming atmosphere and vast collection of affordable used books have been close to the heart of the community of artists, intellectuals, activists, and students who populate the Wolseley area. But Wolseley is changing: those beautiful old homes and quiet tree-lined streets have become prime real estate, and rising rents are driving long-time tenants out of the small business strip on Westminster Avenue.
I stopped by the store to chat with owner, writer, and filmmaker Bill Fugler about managing a small business, the joys of printed books, and his ongoing legal snafu with the City of Winnipeg.
Annalee Giesbrecht: Why a used bookstore?
Bill Fugler: Ever since I was a kid, I’ve hung out in used bookstores. Then I was in the middle of a really weird dispute at the school I worked at where my boss was trying union break, I outed her, and then I got slammed.
Annalee Giesbrecht: So you decided you wanted to open a bookstore?
Bill Fugler: It was an itch in the right direction. I was walking by here and there was an empty building, and we needed a café in the neighbourhood. If you took a walk at night there would be three or four people standing every couple of street corners, just chatting; they didn’t want to invite people back to their house, but they did want to talk to them. I didn’t want to open a café, I wanted to open a bookstore, so I combined the two.
Annalee Giesbrecht: The neighbourhood has changed a lot since then.
Bill Fugler: It’s gentrified.
Annalee Giesbrecht: It seems like a lot of small businesses are moving out of the area.
Bill Fugler: Other small business owners in the area have told me their rents were going sky high. I remember this couple that would sell clothes on the patio here, they came back and they told me they’ve moved north of Portage, and now that’s the real Wolseley. I think they mean in terms of income level; everyone’s still arty here. Although we did have an influx of Hummers a few years ago.
Annalee Giesbrecht: So where do the books come from?
Bill Fugler: I buy them for cash or store credit; we rarely get donations.
Annalee Giesbrecht: I remember, when I worked at The Neighbourhood, you occasionally talking about buying books after people had died, from their families.
Bill Fugler: You go and you sit with the family, and you talk about the person that died, and they’re incredible, they’re these amazing little eulogies for that person. I mean, you’re looking at their bookcase, which is who they were. Very rarely am I ever invited to a house to do this and I’m not incredibly impressed with the books. It’s usually someone who really liked books and liked coming here.
Annalee Giesbrecht: You sell some books on AbeBooks—how does that fit into the business?
Bill Fugler: It’s just another revenue stream. At this point it’s become so expensive. It’s funny, because when Abe was set up [in 1996], one of the original sellers, who was a Winnipeg guy, he had five employees putting stuff up on Abe and fulfilling orders constantly. But if we make a hundred dollars on Abe in a month now we’re happy.
Annalee Giesbrecht: What’s changed?
Bill Fugler: A glut. In the heyday you couldn’t find these books, but now everyone can find them. There are so many people selling them that prices are down. But I think that’s a good thing, because those are real prices, as opposed to, you know, here’s the ivory tower, you go to the ivory tower and pay the ivory price. We don’t artificially inflate our prices.
Annalee Giesbrecht: Are those prices still enough to meet your costs for the rest of the business?
The Neighbourhood Bookstore
Bill Fugler: Yeah, but I don’t think there are people running bookstores making huge amounts of money. We do it because we love it, we love the community, we love the people. Joan Thomas just published a book, The Opening Sky, and we’re in that book. And in A Large Harmonium by Sue Sorensen, she names us. Miriam Toews comes here now whenever she’s in the city. The rewards of this business are myriad, but they’re small. You have to really appreciate the good things in life to appreciate the kind of rewards that you do get. But there have been times where we didn’t get paid, or where I’ve had to take out loans to pay staff.
Annalee Giesbrecht: How does that affect your life?
Bill Fugler: You don’t get holidays. Every now and then I’d like to run off and be a writer—especially after my film Blood Pressure came out. People would tell me, “Quit what you’re doing so you can write, get someone else to do it,” and honestly, that’s a huge desire on my part. There’s a novel I’ve been trying to finish for years.
Annalee Giesbrecht: Are there other obstacles you run into as a small business owner that get in the way of running a bookstore and talking to people?
Bill Fugler: The city. In 2010 they put in a new regulation that requires you, if you produce any food, to put in a grease trap—a grease collector under the sink. And there is an article in this regulation that states that you can ask for an exemption if it doesn’t apply to you. Even the inspector said it doesn’t apply to us—if we had a fryer or a stove-top it would apply and we would have one, but we don’t. So now we’re in the middle of a huge fight with the city. We built this place and we built it to code; the code changed, and to update would cost five or six thousand dollars, and we wouldn’t be able to do it.
Annalee Giesbrecht: What will you do?
Bill Fugler: We’re going to fight the city, because it’s wrong. We have a court date in October. But you know, you don’t become a small business owner because you co-operate well with others. I’ve always wanted to do a documentary on bookstore owners in Winnipeg, because we are the most ludicrous group of people.
Annalee Giesbrecht: What do you think is in the future for bookstores, used or otherwise, in Winnipeg?
Bill Fugler: It’s an awful lot like used record stores. I think we will never die out; people love reading, people love books, they love the tactile physical object and that’s never going to change. I think for those of us who love words there’s always going to be a space.
Annalee Giesbrecht: What do you think is important about that tactile object?
Bill Fugler: I’ve read several books on e-readers and I enjoy it, but at the end I don’t have the book to put down, there’s never that sense of completion—I’m still holding the same object. But when you finish a book you put it down, or you take it back to the library, or you bring it here, or you give it to a friend because you loved it. You leave it on the shelf and it brings up all those memories of what happened when you were reading it, or what you were listening to, or where you were.
Annalee Giesbrecht is a designer, illustrator, writer, and lifelong barista. She lives in Winnipeg.