Twenty-five years ago this week, the staff of McNally Robinson were frantically preparing, bounding about their Grant Park store, a 20,000-square-foot behemoth that had yet to welcome its first customer.

Twenty-five years ago this week, the staff of McNally Robinson were frantically preparing, bounding about their Grant Park store, a 20,000-square-foot behemoth that had yet to welcome its first customer.

The grand opening was near, and so was Margaret Atwood.

Atwood, if not the country’s most famous author then at least its second or third, was in Winnipeg to promote her latest book, Alias Grace, and to lend her authoritative support to what was to become the country’s largest independent bookstore, with a reading and book signing. A large crowd was anticipated.

There was a wild push to get ready for Oct. 15: staff were shifted from the company’s smaller locations, shipments were arriving in rapid succession. Shelves still had to be set up when Atwood arrived a few hours early to discuss the details of her reading, where she would be joined by a local literary icon, Carol Shields.

"Margaret Atwood came with her publicist to see what she got into," recalls Chris Hall, who had joined McNally Robinson Booksellers a few months earlier and was busy unloading copies of Alias Grace as its author walked in. But as soon as Hall noticed her, Atwood was gone.

“Margaret Atwood came with her publicist to see what she got into. She disappeared. She came back with bags from Safeway filled with bananas and granola bars for the staff.” – Chris Hall

"She disappeared," recalled Hall, a once-noncommittal part-time applicant who eventually became the company’s co-owner. "She came back with bags from Safeway filled with bananas and granola bars for the staff."

A quarter-century has passed since that night, when then-owners Holly and Paul McNally opened not just an independent bookstore, but an enormous one, at a moment when some feared the retail book business was dying. Today, the store — with its sprawling selection of everything from children’s books to graphic novels to classic literature — is about as cherished by local readers as the Winnipeg Public Library, continuing to thrive throughout many more moments when the book business was thought to be near death.

But Grant Park is not exactly where the story of McNally Robinson Booksellers began.

In 1980, Holly and Paul McNally moved to Winnipeg, where Holly, a former social worker, was seeking a change of pace and where Paul, an avid woodworker, found work as a professor of English at the University of Manitoba.

Ron Robinson, as Santa, reacts as Nicholas Cambell, 4, pulls his beard during a visit to McNally Robinson Bookstore in December 2018.

JOHN WOODS / FREE PRESS FILES

Ron Robinson, as Santa, reacts as Nicholas Cambell, 4, pulls his beard during a visit to McNally Robinson Bookstore in December 2018.

Then, in January 1981, their nascent interest in the literary business was piqued when an erudite 34-year-old with a penchant for wordplay was laid off by the downtown Eaton's in his capacity as book buyer. His name was Ron Robinson.

Robinson was, like the McNallys, a true book lover, and had worked his way up Eaton’s employee food chain, selling pipes, sweeping floors and sorting hangers before receiving a life preserver in the form of a position as a stock boy in the book department. In 1977, Robinson became the buyer under department head Carl Buffie, a dream gig.

But in 1981, the major department-store chain centralized its buying operations in Toronto, and Robinson, along with several other workers, was laid off. Disgruntled, but not discouraged, Robinson spoke to local reporters about the unexpected change, his regrets and his desire to continue working in books, objects he felt were different than other items he could have hawked.

"I don’t think a frying pan says ‘I Love You’ like a book does," he told the Free Press.

"Paul and Holly saw that article, heard me on the radio, called me and said, ‘You seem like the man we’d like to open a bookstore with,’ " Robinson recalls. They had finances, enthusiasm and determination. Robinson had bookselling knowledge, and a not-small chip on his shoulder to show Eaton's what it had lost.

In 1981, looking for a location, Robinson sat on a "grassy hillock" at Grant Avenue and Kenaston Boulevard all day, watching who was coming to the strip mall across the street. Behind him was all green, and not on the exterior walls of the Real Canadian Superstore: the area was much different then than now. He saw busy people, children, busy people with children, and the McNallys agreed it would make a strong location.

Paul McNally in the new McNally Robinson book store at Polo Park in 2008. Paul was largely responsible for the Grant Park store’s look and feel.

WAYNE GLOWACKI / FREE PRESS FILES

Paul McNally in the new McNally Robinson book store at Polo Park in 2008. Paul was largely responsible for the Grant Park store’s look and feel.

Paul McNally was largely responsible for the store’s look and feel, while Robinson brought with him retail strategies gleaned from Eaton's, such as hot zones, access points, shelf orientations, stock-control systems and customer-satisfaction ideology.

"Holly had such enthusiasm and Paul made everything look sharp," Robinson says. "Our store looked so good that for the first two years or so, people asked, ‘Are you an American chain?’ They couldn’t believe it."

When it came to naming the store, there was no real debate: McNally Robinson had a good ring to it.

Although, if Robinson’s mother had a say, that might be different. "She insisted on calling it Robinson McNally," Robinson says with a laugh. Ms. Atwood was a fixture in that store’s early days, too, then promoting her 1981 book, Bodily Harm. As the store’s first book-signer, she helped Robinson stock shelves.

But by 1983, change was afoot, and the McNallys bought Robinson out. However, his name — only recently put on a $900 sign out front — stayed.

By 1983, change was afoot, and the McNallys bought Robinson out.

By 1986, a second location in Osborne Village opened, followed by expansions into Portage Place and a children’s store on Henderson Highway. By the time the Grant Park store opened, McNally Robinson had outlived several cherished bookstores of yesteryear, and beat out major book retailers like Chapters by a few years in establishing a major footprint.

Meanwhile, hundreds of employees, including some who went on to successful literary careers, were hired, including two members of the 2021 Giller Prize long list, Miriam Toews and Casey Plett, who worked at Grant Park from 2013 through 2015, when her first book, A Safe Girl to Love, was released.

Some of Plett's favourite memories include the two times someone she didn't know came to the counter to buy her book. "Each time I played it coy. 'Have you heard anything about this title?' The first time, it was a young girl who said she hadn't, she loved the cover and was excited to read it. I nearly cried right there; it was a dream come true.

"The second time it was a middle-aged woman who replied, 'Yeah, I know you wrote it. It's for my book club.'"

A reader peruses a book inside the McNally Robinson bookstore in Saskatoon in 2007.

GREG PENDER / STAR PHOENIX FILES

A reader peruses a book inside the McNally Robinson bookstore in Saskatoon in 2007.

Plett also met Toews when she released All My Puny Sorrows in 2014, bonding with the former employee-turned-bestselling author before Toews was forced to conduct the reading from the store's spiral staircase, with no other space in the packed room.

As the store in Winnipeg thrived, the company set its sights west, opening stores in Saskatoon and Calgary, and east, in an ill-fated recession-era expansion into Toronto that dovetailed with a Polo Park shopping centre location in the late aughts; the eastward endeavours landed with a thud.

While that was happening, Chris Hall was, as Robinson did before him at Eaton's, learning the book business from the inside all along. When he was hired in 1996, he was fresh out of his master’s program, looking for something to do for a little while. "My cover letter was very non-committal," he said. A little while turned out to be about half of his life.

By 2012, the McNallys, having built up the business to become not just a bookseller, but a restaurant, game retailer, toy seller, event centre and community hub, were looking to move on. After 30-plus years, it was time, and Hall and Lori Baker, the company’s controller for the previous six years, were interested in taking the reins. (Tori McNally, one of the couple’s daughters, was originally involved in the succession plans, but changed course. Sarah McNally, another daughter, runs the New York-based McNally Jackson stores.)

Lori Baker and Chris Hall bought the business over the course of about six years,

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Lori Baker and Chris Hall bought the business over the course of about six years,

Hall and Baker bought the business over the course of about six years, and now oversee the operations of a company whose business is in more than just books, though the printed page still makes up two-thirds of McNally Robinson’s annual business. Across all locations, the company boasts nearly 10,000 reader-reward card holders.

The Saskatoon store, opened in 1998, is still going strong, as is an outpost opened at The Forks four years ago, but to many, the Grant Park shop remains the ultimate destination for browsing and getting lost in the stacks.

While still an independent seller, McNally Robinson occupies a unique space in Canadian books: too huge to be small, too small to be huge, too local to be national. It’s a dynamic that's owed to the company’s roots and its symbiosis with Canadian publishers and authors, whom it has always vocally promoted.

It’s also lived, as an entity, through the rise of Amazon and digital book sales, the decline of major North American sellers like Barnes & Noble and Borders, and a brief court-appointed period of bankruptcy protection after the openings at Polo Park and in Toronto. It continues to stock the city's largest selection of magazines, even as their page counts creep downward. It continues, and continues, and continues.

What’s the secret? Hall takes a modest stab. "It's the customers, and it’s the creativity. There’s no software for this. I always say we hire creative people — writers, artists, thinkers, musicians. We make stuff up as we go along."

"And as long as the community wants us to be here, McNally Robinson will be here," he adds.

ben.waldman@freepress.mb.ca

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Ben Waldman

Ben Waldman
Reporter

Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.