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Book-launch venue hop: McNally Robinson Booksellers, Winnipeg

Each month, Q&Q visits dingy watering holes, upscale cafés, and other haunts in search of the country’s most beloved book launch venues


(photo: Ariel Gordon)

McNally Robinson Booksellers’ Grant Park store may be located in a suburban Winnipeg mall, but it’s a 24,000-square-foot space that’s become a hub for both local and out-of-town writers, many of whose faces grace its walls.

McNally claims its Grant Park location is Canada’s largest independent bookstore. It probably is, but size doesn’t really matter. The store – which was opened in 1996 by Holly and Paul McNally and is now owned by Chris Hall and Lori Baker – hosts more than 500 readings and launches annually. It was one of the first sponsors of the Manitoba Book Awards, and is a long-time sponsor of Prairie Fire’s annual writing contests. – Ariel Gordon

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1. Since founding the mini-chain in 1981, the McNallys have opened five bookstores in Winnipeg, as well as locations in Calgary, Toronto, and Saskatoon (the only other remaining store besides the Grant Park location). Along the way, they developed an aesthetic that touches everything from the dark-green signage with white lettering to laying out the stores in a radial plan “like Paris” instead of on a grid “like Los Angeles.” Two large event spaces at Grant Park feature rolling shelves that can be moved to make room for readers and writers.

2. “I launched my first book at their little original River and Osborne store,” says Prince George poet Rob Budde, who was raised in Winnipeg. “I became a writer at that store and sometimes dream it is still there.”

Budde isn’t the only one with fond memories of former McNally locations. Fantasy writer Guy Gavriel Kay’s McNally “family myth” is that his mother was the first customer at the Kenaston and Grant location. 

“My mom, a true bibliophile, told us over dinner that a ‘lovely woman’ had opened a little bookstore in that strip mall that very day and she’d wandered by in the morning,” says Kay. “‘Did you buy anything?’ we asked. ‘Of course I did,’ she said, almost indignant.”

Kay, who attended high school next to the mall, regularly gives readings to standing-room-only crowds at the store. “My own readings at Grant Park have always been wonderful,” says Kay. “It is my favourite bookstore in which to read in Canada – a homecoming for me.”

3. John Toews, McNally’s full-time event coordinator, is in charge of spreadsheets. He knows, for instance, there were huge turnouts for Miriam Toews, Ian Rankin, David Suzuki, Margaret Atwood, Gordon Pinsent, Thomas King, Joseph Boyden, and John Ralston Saul. And he personally managed events for Chris Hadfield and Neil Gaiman to which more than 1,000 people showed up.

But for Perry Grosshans – who, during his tenure as general manager of the Winnipeg International Writers Festival, booked events at the store – that’s not the whole story.

“What I like about McNally’s is that they are very accommodating for all readers and writers,” says Grosshans. “They don’t care if you are a first-time writer who is promoting a chapbook, or a veteran who will fill the house. They treat everyone with respect, and bring some real panache to everyone’s launch and readings.”