In the 30 years since downtown Winnipeg’s Forks Market and the Forks National Historical Site were established, the venue has expanded to include the Human Rights Museum and an outdoor concert venue that has hosted everything from the Pan Am Games to Interstellar Rodeo. The public space – located at the junction of the Red and Assiniboine rivers – also houses one of the longest skating trails in the country.
But 6,000 years ago, the site was a meeting place for the Anishinaabe, Cree, Dakota, and Assiniboine. When McNally Robinson Booksellers committed to opening a new 1,000-square-foot store in the Forks, co-owner Chris Hall knew he wanted to foreground that history. “Indigenous and local writing have always been an important part of what we do,” says Hall. “Our stores have large sections dedicated to Indigenous issues, Prairie writers, and regional interest. The store at the Forks is no different. Its Indigenous section is immediately inside the door, the first section of books you’ll see, and ranges from Indigenous books for babies right through adult.”
That effort has not gone unnoticed by community members.
“Folks from McNally’s have played an important part in promoting Indigenous writers,” says Duncan Mercredi, a Cree writer and storyteller. “They have always treated us with respect and, at least with me, made me feel that what I had to share was important.”
The Winnipeg International Writers Festival considers the Forks their second home, so having McNally’s there is ideal, says festival director Charlene Diehl. “McNally’s has been our festival bookseller since the festival’s inception in 1997, and over the past few years, we have expanded our partnership to include year-round programming, primarily at the flagship store on Grant,” says Diehl. “We’re keen to add the Forks store to that venue list.”
Part of what attracted McNally’s was the recent $2.5-million renovation of the Forks Market food court. The refresh – which included a harvest table with seating for 80, a beer and wine counter, and new food vendors – has turned the Forks in a dining destination. Hall was aware of these changes, but it wasn’t until he received a call from a representative from the market that he considered opening a store there.
“Once our conversation progressed I realized that the revitalization and changes that I’d been somewhat aware of at the Forks was part of a coordinated plan,” says Hall. “The next phase of raising standards is in the retail aspect of the market and we happened on that conversation at its very start. It seemed too good an opportunity to miss.”
At its height, the McNally Robinson mini-chain, which was established in 1981, had four stores, including ones in Toronto and Calgary. This is the first new store since the 2012 departure of founders Paul and Holly McNally, who left the business to Hall and fellow co-worker Lori Baker. Among his other duties, Paul McNally famously used to build all the green and white shelves for his stores.
“I told him when we were first discussing buying them out that I would have to ‘outsource’ the woodworking for all future projects so that’s exactly what I did,” says Hall. “I found a company who could replicate, exactly, the look of his bookshelves.”