The book shop’s burgundy awning is one the City Centre’s major landmarks.

A big little book store

Audreys has made a big impact on the development
of Edmonton’s literary community
By Rudy Howell

WITH NO SIGN of physical distancing coming to end any time soon as Albertans continue to combat the spread of COVID-19, many of us are taking the time to dig into a new book, or perhaps finish an old one.

For Edmontonians, it is very likely many of these books have come from Audreys Books Ltd., the city’s oldest and sole remaining full-service independent bookstore.

Surely the iconic burgundy awning draped over the corner of Jasper Avenue and 107 Street must ring a bell. But if not, I’m here to tell you why it should.

Audreys is teeming with local history. The bookstore currently operates out of the first two floors of the MacLean Block building, built in 1909 for physician and surgeon Dr. J. D. MacLean. The three-storey landmark, noted for its elaborate brickwork, is one of Edmonton’s finest remaining examples of Edwardian architecture. At the time of its construction, it was the westernmost commercial building in the city.

In 1956, just a few blocks west of MacLean Block, Hurtig Books ­– both Audreys’ first incarnation and Edmonton’s first bookstore – was opened with just $500 by 23-year-old Edmontonian Mel Hurtig. A bookseller, publisher, and activist, Hurtig – who died in 2016 – is perhaps best known as publisher of The Canadian Encyclopedia.

At the time, Hurtig Books was the only full-service, independently operated book retailer between Toronto and Vancouver. Within a decade, it was hailed by many as the best bookstore in Canada. After relocating the main store into a larger space and the opening of two new outlets in the city, Hurtig Books became one of the biggest book retailers in the country.

“We created almost a bit of an intellectual community centre,” Hurtig told The Globe and Mail in 2006.

The store was known for serving free coffee in the back, setting up chairs and tables with chess sets and Go boards, and occasionally sponsoring readings, book signings, plays and lectures.

Yet, to focus more on his publishing business and growing political interests, Hurtig sold all three stores to Vancouver book wholesaler Julian “Buddy” Smith in 1972, and the business was renamed Julian Books, but it experienced hard times following the departure of its charismatic and interactive founder.

‘We created almost a bit
of an intellectual community centre’

Three years later, the operation was saved from demise by none other than Hurtig’s former chief clerk, Audrey Whaley – the store’s namesake – who purchased it in partnership with her husband, Ewart Whaley, and Edmonton lawyer and bureaucrat, Ammon Ackroyd.

Born in England, Whaley had also worked as a cultural ambassador and book representative for both Hurtig and Julian Books before purchasing the business. In 1975, Hurtig’s three stores were merged under the roof of MacLean Block as Audreys Books Ltd.

Over the next decade, Whaley, like Hurtig, was a very involved owner. She read all genres in order to help undecided customers pick books that were right for them as well as managing reading programs for children. In fact, she even founded the first kindergarten in Sherwood Park.

In 1988, the Whaleys sold Audreys to another husband-and-wife duo, Steve and Sharon Budnarchuk. Since 1969, Sharon had worked as a buyer for the Montreal-based chain, Classic Bookshops, which was swallowed up in a merger with Chapters Inc. in the 1990s.

Unfortunately for the Budnarchuks, the 1990s proved to be a challenging decade for both Edmonton’s downtown core and independent book retailers. The development of the World Wide Web in 1989 and subsequent onset of the information age put a damper on what were supposed to be their honeymoon years with the business.

Miraculously, Audreys managed to stay afloat when many City Centre businesses struggled, and Sharon Budnarchuk helped the neighbourhood recover from the difficult economic period when she became the first female president of the Downtown Business Association in 1993.

In the early 2000s, with Chapters as the overwhelmingly dominant bookseller in Canada, Audreys was forced to change its business model.

Instead of continuing to primarily stock bestsellers, the store began to focus more on promoting local authors, catering to special requests from clients, and expanding its collection of niche genres – especially history and psychology.

Nowadays, while the store maintains a popular general-interest adult assortment, it is best known for its children’s books, toys, games, puzzles and other gift items. Audreys is also a supplier of textbooks to schools and libraries in the area, and is host to more than 50 readings and literary events per year both in store and around Edmonton, which are designed to help connect the city’s readers and writers.

Last summer, after 50 years in the book business, Sharon Budnarchuk retired from her duties, leaving her husband in charge of day-to-day operations.

Like many independent businesses across Alberta, Audreys is currently providing a curbside delivery service in an effort to maintain revenue as COVID-19 continues to take its toll on the province’s economy.

 

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