McNally McNo More

By DJ Kelly March 13, 2008

This blog entry is cross posted on the Calgary Herald’s Q.

Calgary has officially lost a landmark today. I’m hearing from sources (and now the Herald) that McNally Robinson Booksellers on Stephen Avenue will be closing their doors this summer.

This is a huge strike to the heart of Calgary’s arts and culture scene. McNally was one of the very few downtown retailers that sought out Calgary talent – be it literary, musical or otherwise – and gave them a stage to show their works. It was great working with their staff (I had occasion to do so when I was with Alberta Theatre Projects and again when I was trying to find a new audience for Theatre Junction.) They truly cared about the community and their place in it.

Not to mention it they were simply the best bookstore in town. The best by A LONG SHOT. (Sorry Pages, you know I love you, but it’s tough to compete.) On a personal note often they were the only Calgary retailer that had the book I was looking for. Smaller shops like Pages and Owl’s Nest were just too small to carry some of the more obscure non-fiction I often request. And Chapters/Indigo is usually too unilateral to even order them in the first place let alone a special order.

I can’t say I’m overly surprised they are closing. The location was a shocker for me when I first heard they were moving into Calgary in 2002. (I’d previously enjoyed each square foot of the Saskatoon McNally.) Calgary’s downtown – outside of the lunc hour – certainly was never described as lively. I’d heard more than one person on more than one occasion describe Calgary’s core as “dead”. This was a serious hit to the city’s wishful image as a cosmopolitan centre. There was no way anyone thought a big bookstore could survive downtown. (A&B couldn’t even do it any longer.) But then a Western Canadian born and bred bookseller came to town and took a chance.

I think it is safe to say a lot of Calgary’s evening and weekend resurgence can be attributed to the McNally family’s shop. They started a trend that saw the storefronts of Stephen Avenue open up one by one during times other than just lunch. Soon Encorp followed by taking a huge risk with Art Central. Theatre Junction chose to do the same and bring back the Grand Theatre. New restaurants started popping up throughout downtown. Earl’s expanded into Fuel; and very recently even the Calgary Flames decided it was worth the chance and they chose to refurbish the Palace Theatre into Flames Central. Anyone who visited Calgary’s downtown just five years ago would barely recognize it now. There are actually people on the streets after 5:30pm. And not just the homeless.

McNally Robinson leaving Calgary is a blow in more ways than many of us might think. Hopefully it is not a sign of things to come. This would certainly be a boom going bust. And nobody in either the business or arts community wants that.

McNally will be closing their doors August first and I will be weeping shortly after.

Although I’m glad I didn’t renew my Reader Club card early, like I planned to last week…