Holding court from Winnipeg’s cultural city hall

Aqua Books’ Kelly Hughes on his brother’s legacy and why Ikea is a bad idea for Winnipeg

Kelly Hughes’ weekly newsletters are a glimpse into the five Ws of Winnipeg’s cultural scene. Cindy Titus

One year after moving out of the Exchange District, Aqua Books on Garry Street still bears signs of the Chinese restaurant it once was. A glass partition with Chinese symbols on it separates what used to be a sitting area from the rest of the store. The miss-matched stains on the wood walls show where more Chinese decorations used to be.

But the visual clues to the building’s almost 90 years of history stretch back even further. Owner Kelly Hughes spent $15,000 and delayed opening his store for two months to restore the 600 tin ceiling tiles in the main room.

“To me it just seemed important,” said Hughes, 39. “This is a bit of 90-year-old Winnipeg history and I think it should be preserved.”

The past couple of months have marked some bitter-sweet anniversaries for Hughes. April marked the grand re-opening of Aqua Books and the opening of Eat! Bistro, owned by Hughes’ wife Candace.

May, however, marked the passing of Hughes’ older brother, Winnipeg publisher and culture booster, Brad Hughes.

During his 53 years of life, the older Hughes had a tremendous impact on Winnipeg’s cultural landscape. He started Fanfare Magazine Group in 1984, which he ran until his death. He helped found several Winnipeg publications, including Uptown, WHERE Winnipeg, and the food magazine Ciao, which he ran with his wife.

Brad was heavily involved in Winnipeg’s tourism industry, which Hughes said was “the red-headed step-child of Winnipeg industry” at the time. He helped found Tourism Winnipeg and came up with several promotional campaigns for the city, including 100 Reasons to Love Winnipeg.

“Winnipeg has always had a self-image problem…at least since they built the Panama Canal. But (Brad) fought against that attitude. I found (his) attitude kind of infectious,” said Hughes.

In addition to expanding his store and installing the restaurant, Hughes transformed the upper level of his new building into a nurturing environment for local artists. He built three rooms which he rents out for free to local writers to use as workshops. In exchange, those writers-in-residence give public readings and workshops in the large theatre across the hall, which Hughes dubbed “Winnipeg’s cultural city hall.”

“I felt like there was not a dialogue happening in Winnipeg about Winnipeg. There was no place to be a clearing house for all the great cultural things that were happening in Winnipeg. I wanted to be that place,” said Hughes.

Hughes hasn’t limited his discussion of Winnipeg to his own private city hall. He recently gave a presentation to a Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce study group on where Winnipeg should go in the next 20 years.

Hughes told them he finds Winnipeg’s usual obsessions – crime and parking – boring. He said mega-developments like Ikea hurt the city more than they help it.

“As soon as Ikea opens, a bunch of little places, like in Osborne, are going to close. How is that good for the city?”

Hughes said the city should focus on supporting smaller, local projects that keep money in the city instead of sending it out to head offices in Toronto or out of the country.

“That to me is where it’s at,” he said.

In order for that to happen, though, Hughes said there needs to be a cultural change at City Hall, starting with the Mayor.

“Sam Katz represents to me a return to the bad old days when city hall was a part-time job. But he’ll probably still get re-elected, unless some unstoppable Terminator rises up.”

Hughes said he has no plans to resign as Mayor of Winnipeg’s cultural city hall.

Aqua Books is located at 274 Garry Street.

Published in Volume 63, Number 28 of The Uniter (June 18, 2009)

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