After nearly 10 years of operating a popular independent theatre, Winnipeg Fringe venue and expansive bookstore, Ragpickers Antifashion Emporium will be closing down its top floor by Thursday, Nov. 15 while the future of the main floor clothing store remains uncertain.
“I believe what I’m doing is actually a service to people,” said Kristen Andrews, an independent entrepreneur who has owned Ragpickers since 1990 and was involved in the early stages of developing the business in 1988.
“When I add up all the people that have seen shows in that space, all the years as a Fringe venue, we were sometimes getting upwards of 500 and 600 people a day seeing shows.”
Ragpickers operates under two separate leases in an old Exchange District building at 216 McDermot Ave.
The first lease, which is up for possible renewal at the end of this year, applies only to the main floor clothing shop. The second lease, which will not be renewed past the Nov. 15 deadline after the verbal assurance of building owner Mike Nava, applies to the second floor theatre and bookstore.
However, for Andrews, the future of the clothing shop is increasingly uncertain.
“We’re negotiating right now for how long Ragpickers can remain on the main floor and … we’re looking for a landlord that is interested in the long-term development of the neighbourhood,” she said.
“How many times have we seen spaces get tons of money dumped into them ... by someone who doesn’t have a sense of what the community needs?”
According to Andrews, who has had to relocate several times in the over two decades she has owned the business, there is a pattern in the behaviour of property owners in the Exchange District.
From 1990 to 1999, Ragpickers operated out of a building at the corner of Arthur Street and McDermot Avenue, with a cooperative model that facilitated the development of many future clothing and book retailers in the Exchange, including what later became Vintage Glory at 88 Albert St.
The cooperative was asked to vacate with 40 days notice after the building owner decided to jump on the dot-com bandwagon, Andrews said, turning the building into a slate of computer offices, which lasted for just over a year.
Ragpickers then moved to a temporary location behind the Walker Theatre, now the Burton Cummings Theatre, on Smith Street before finally settling down on McDermot Avenue.
“When I look back, exactly what our issues were in 1999, 12 years later, they’re not that much different,” she said.
Mike Nava, the owner of 216 McDermot Ave., would not confirm whether the lease on the main floor will be renewed when The Uniter spoke with him several weeks ago.
He did not return more recent calls before press time and Andrews insists she has had no problem paying her rent since Nava took over ownership of the building.
Milena Placentile, the co-owner of the artistic collective Atomic Centre on Logan Avenue, has offered Andrews space to house her books and some theatre programs while she continues her negotiations and search for a new space.
Placentile is optimistic that Andrews can establish another retail cooperative in the coming years.
“As far as I’m concerned, Kristen made the Exchange,” Placentile said. “The energy and spirit she contributes … is what makes the Exchange an attractive place to be.”
Published in Volume 66, Number 10 of The Uniter (November 2, 2011)