Winnipeg landmark shutting down

Hull’s Steinbach bookstore to remain open

An era is coming to an end. For the past 18 years, sisters-in-law Margo Smith and Kathy Smith have shared an office and a partners’ desk as they managed the daily operations of Hull’s Family Bookstores, a Christian retail outlet with stores in Winnipeg and Steinbach in Manitoba, and another in Thunder Bay, Ontario.

However, in a restructuring process announced in late January, the Thunder Bay and Winnipeg stores will be shutting down for good. The Steinbach store will continue, and there is a possibility that a “right-size” Christian resource centre will re-open somewhere in Winnipeg in due course.

Hull’s has had a downtown presence in the Manitoba capital for nearly 95 years. Two generations of the Hull family ran the business for 77 years, before selling to the Smith family in 1998. Since then, competition from large retailers and advances in digital technology have revolutionized the book-selling industry. Hull’s is only the latest in a long line of independent booksellers forced to shutter their operations.

For the current owners, the transition is bittersweet. Winnipeg is losing a centrally-located landmark that provided a meeting space for Christians from across the denominational spectrum. Margo Smith summons an image that defines the ecumenical breadth of the store, describing a scene at the Bible display where a nun in full habit is standing side-by-side with a Hutterite man holding the hand of an eight-year-old boy.

“Where else would these Christians encounter each other?” she asks.

At peace

And while the shuttering of a meeting place is a real loss, the Smiths have come to peace with their decision. “We completely understand and accept the changes in the marketplace,” they say. “Our resolve to restructure and downsize is a business decision. But Hull’s is a ministry as well. The writer of Ecclesiastes assures us, ‘… everything God does endures for all time. Nothing can be added to it; nothing can be taken away from it.’”

MK Hulls
Margo Smith (left) and her sister Kathy.

They express gratitude for the season of ministry and their customers. “Nothing changes the legacy of Hull’s, the work of God through books and your participation in that. We celebrate you, our customers, our shared experiences at Hull’s, and the serendipity of the Spirit, when the right book at the right time with the right word has changed a life.”

As Margo sees it, Hull’s has helped to distribute helpful products throughout the community. Thousands of Bibles and Christian books will continue to be read as time goes by. The message is out there.

She does lament the loss of relationship that is fostered in face-to-face encounters. Hull’s, she says, has been “a safe place” where “staff and customers forged a trust.” Staff went out of their way to connect people with products that were just right for them.

And it’s those customers who are most feeling the loss. “People are now grieving the impending loss of the store. We see the stages of grief as our customers respond to the news. Shock, anger, denial, bargaining and acceptance play out before us.”

Connecting point

Margo, who served on the board of ChristianWeek for much of the time she was involved with Hull’s, recalls hearing ChristianWeek founder Harold Jantz speak at a fundraiser in 1997. It was the first time she heard the word “trans-denominational,” and she eagerly co-opted it into the vision for the bookstores.

“Our hope was that the Christian bookstore could act as a connecting point for the cross-pollination of ideas and practices between Christian traditions. I was very gratified when one of our former staff members said that the opportunity to ‘labour alongside Christians from a wide variety of backgrounds’ was seminal in his life, and that Hull’s, at its best, was a ‘centre for cross-denominational understanding, promotion of church unity.’”

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