Arts & Life

To the best bookstore in Winnipeg

McNally Robinson's Grant Park Mall location. Photo credit: Leif Norman

If the head on top of her outstretched, assertive neck turned toward you, this would start a troubling loop of thoughts, starting with “oh shit” and ending somewhere between that and an aneurysm. But she was part of it. Everyone was. There were some fascinating characters — a few forgettable, but most not — peddling books with me during my three-year stint at McNally Robinson.

We were all erudite and misanthropic together, and that’s a strong bond, it turns out. But whatever hatred of mankind our large, black-framed glasses projected, it didn’t hold a candle to his. His set precedent. The two, him and her, both real people, shall remain nameless in this story.

I would have sold a piece of my soul and turned my back on those I love if it guaranteed me a job at McNally Robinson, the best friggin’ bookstore in the city. It’s good it didn’t come to that. I began as a bookseller at McNally Robinson in 2005. And it was everything I imagined it to be: Awesome. Where else was I supposed to work? I studied philosophy and believed I was smarter than most. I would later struggle to get along with a group of people who also believed those terrible things of themselves. A sampling of those still lurk behind the scenes there.

“I have ADD [that’s what it was called then, I think], but the kind only smart people get,” a coworker told me.

“Wow,” was all I could muster, thinking sarcastically, “I sure wish I had such a fortunate disability.”

I obviously felt threatened.

This was the bunch we were.

And, really, we should all be happy to have a bookstore full of such people. Smug service at a bookstore is important to the experience. Buying a book, after all, is not normal commercialism; it’s something so much more. And receiving judgment for a book or magazine choice lets the customer know they’re in the right place for books.

“Believe me, you don’t want to read Zizek. Literary criticism may have all sorts of sex appeal, but this beautiful, comprehensive philosophy section has so much more to offer,” is something I said in my mind many times. But some professor in some school in Winnipeg was heavy on Zizek, and so I brought him in for the growing groundswell. Now his films are on Netflix. I don’t know what that means.

“So, you went with Zizek, anyway,” enters the smugness. The important smugness.

She’ll think twice about buying him next time, I bet.

It is the best bookstore in Winnipeg, and I don’t go there much since I left. But I did the other day.

I was an okay customer, I guess. There’s nothing more annoying than hearing customers wax bookish about having worked there years ago. But, despite that, since I quit in 2008, I’m usually that customer and bring up that I used to work there, hoping to work it in to some advice or some comment about their strange, code-heavy cash system.

It’s all about the customers

I was a forgettable customer this time. The interesting ones also buy New Yorkers and Economists, but they usually stuff a Maxim or a Loaded UK between them. It’s crafty. Touché, Customer Sneaky, touché. And Customer Sneaky would also execute this boobs-between-brains system with books. We spent a lot of time shrink-wrapping books full of certain gratuities of the naked variety, and it’s those publications that would come to the check-out hidden under Zizek.

Customer Familiar we knew by name. They ordered esoteric titles, had meals and coffee at the attached restaurant, Prairie Ink, felt even more entitled than we did, and visited the store more times than most people who work for a living could.

“Excuse me, sir. You can’t do that in here.” This is Customer Shameless. In the quoted instance, we had to do something. He was fondling himself on a chair. My recollection shows him wearing jogging pants. He must have been. “Please, sir, either purchase Fast Balls or put it back in the erotica section.”

Customer Vague kept the job interesting and unexpected. Their requests were a treasure hunt with too few clues to properly qualify as such. I liked them. They stole me away from shelving new and returned books. But the sentiment wasn’t unanimous. Misanthropy was genuine in some of my coworkers. Dexterish, at times.

“It’s red, and I heard about it on CBC,” said Customer Vague.

“Okay, let me get to a computer. Is it a book?”


“Can you tell me anything about it? What was it about? Which program featured it, and when did you hear about it?”

“The show had a female host, I think. And I heard it on my way home. No. Wait. It was lunch. I heard over lunch.”

Household Solutions by Rena Nerbas contains approximately zero traces of the colour red. But it was the right book. I found it.

Customer Virgin was charming. It was their first time penetrating a bookstore. Or at least it seemed that way, the way they were performing. This was not their natural habitat. Some would act bullish. Others were gripped by terror. Both symptoms were usually detectible from the central cash station. They weren’t wanderers. They wanted something specific.

“Do you have that book about the WWII war vessel, (blank)?”

“Yes. Right behind you on the New Non-Fiction shelf.”

Commendable. They don’t waste time or mince words. Take me to my book, and I’ll be on my way.

There’s something fraudulent about the intelligence one feels being surrounded by books. Yet that feeling is not entirely unimportant. But Customer Virgin gets it, perfectly. Reading is important to them, but they’re smart enough to realize that to write a book isn’t much different than making a chair. And there are many chairs in this world not worth seeing or sitting on. The Secret came out while I worked there.

Customer Certifiably Nuts was just that. Security watched them, as they didn’t quite rank as Customer Banned-From-the-Store. But they were close. And they played fast and loose on that fine line.

Customer Can-I-Still-Return-This is, I’m sure, still a favourite. If you’ve got few muscles to flex elsewhere in your life, “the customer’s always right” is a good, probably necessary, card to play.

“Well, it says on the receipt that this item must be returned within 15 days for a refund, and 30 days for store credit. And you don’t even have a receipt.”

“Do you need my debit card, or how do you want to do this?”

“I’m really sorry, but I can’t take this book back.”

“I’d like to speak to your manager.”

“I’m the manager tonight.”

“I have been a loyal customer or McNally Robinson for as long as they have been in this city. I know Paul and Holly well, and I know they would allow me to return this book.”

“The best I can do is store credit.”


This is when I realize that the book in question was bought nearly a year ago, and we haven’t stocked it for just as long. Humanity sucks sometimes, and so does working retail.

Booksellers are the gatekeepers, they think, I thought, and when control is compromised, it feels pretty shitty. Bereft of the power we thought we had, some would break through the light jazz playing on repeat with a curse word. Or, at times, a loud, specific slag against that customer. Some would slam through the swinging door leading to the back. An angry introvert is an unpredictable animal. We all knew to stay away and give it time.

The restaurant staff were a breath of fresh air. They didn’t pretend to be bookish. They were social, and knew how to talk about normal, everyday things. And were more willing to have a little fun.

“Hey, I dare you to announce, ‘Jennifer Love Hewitt, party of five, your table is ready’ over the intercom.”

“Who’s that?”

From the weakness of my explanation, it was apparent I barely knew myself.

“Okay, I’ll do it.”

When it happened, I was the only one who laughed. It was playful.

There are things I won’t touch here. One of them being the passionate hatred for Jack Johnson that stemmed from my working at McNally Robinson. He was played over and over again. I had visions of pulling his no doubt surfboard-shaped acoustic guitar from his hands and throwing it deep into the sea. After breaking it over his head, of course.

I paid for my magazines and walked out. Part of me wanted to explore, or tell some happy hipster that, though this job is great, keep honing skills for the actual workforce. But that would be mean and inaccurate. Some have worked at the bookstore for decades and still love it like they first did.

And when you hear about a book on CBC that for some reason you think is red, you’ll want an experienced bookseller.

It’s always strange to go back. I resigned with something to say, and I said it. It may still be accurate, but it’s an impotent whisper compared to the good times I had working there, and to the importance of having a bookstore such as it is in our city.