This is the latest entry in a series called Who Owns That. We've asked readers to identify their favourite small businesses from across Canada, and we track down the owners so they can tell us their stories. Their answers are edited.
Introducing Chris Hall, owner McNally Robinson Booksellers, based in Winnipeg.
1. Let's start with the basics. Can you briefly describe your business, including when it was founded, what it does, and where you operate?
McNally Robinson Booksellers (MRB) was founded by Holly and Paul McNally in 1981. The company expanded with several smaller bookstores before it opened the larger format store in Winnipeg in 1996, which continues to operate today. Our Saskatoon location was added in 1998, and it continues as well.
We are booksellers in both the old-fashioned and new meanings of the word. Our main sales focus is books and we support those sales with author events – several in an evening in the busy seasons. We've always supplemented book sales with music and movies, as well as an interesting and eclectic selection of giftware product.
Both locations also include a full-service restaurant, Prairie Ink Restaurant & Bakery, which work in concert with our bookselling efforts. The final piece of our pie is our wholesale operation, Skylight Books, which serves the library and school markets.
2. What inspired you and your partner to buy the business from the founders and to branch out on your own?
I've worked for MRB for 16 years and I can't imagine where else I'd want to be. The store means so much to the community and in the cultural lives of our cities that the gratification of our work goes way beyond the pay cheque. When the McNallys expressed their desire to retire and sell, I was honoured that they considered me to be a suitable choice to maintain their creation. It was an opportunity that was too good to pass up.
3. Who are your typical customers, and how do they find you?
I have some difficulty defining our customers by age, education level or income bracket. The commonality certainly has something to do with community and culture – we appeal to people for whom those concepts are important parts of their lives. Our customers are our best ambassadors and probably do the most to inform and remind others that they should come and see what we're up to.
4. What are the roles of you and your co-owner in the business? How many employees do you have?
My co-owner, Lori Baker, is our long-time controller, so she focuses on our financial health. She also emphasizes the restaurants in her efforts. I'll emphasize the bookstores. That said, we'll cross over in many different ways and be able to fill in and support each other as needed.
We currently have close to 250 employees in total.
5. You've been identified by one of our readers as a standout business. What do you consider the key element of your success?
Our key element is hard to express in words but McNally Robinson as a whole is certainly greater than the sum of its parts. We are fully engaged in the communities in which we operate and we benefit from loyalty from our customers that couldn't be stronger. Being a real place made up of real people has its advantages and we just try to make the most of those.