A proud Winnipegger and a passionate promoter of the arts, Kelly Hughes owned and operated Aqua Books from 1999 to 2012. Noah Richler described Aqua Books as “one of the craziest, most amusing and well-ordered second-hand bookstores I have ever frequented.”
The end of Aqua Books took its toll on Hughes, but he has found new ways to champion the arts and connect with musicians, poets, playwrights and artists. His weekly radio show, The Ivory Tower, on CKUW is just one of those ways. Hughes has no qualms about openly discussing both his triumphs and troubles of life after Aqua Books.
Why did Aqua Books shut down?
We were shut down three years ago in the middle of the Fringe Festival. We didn’t have our occupancy permit due to a combination of factors. It wasn’t entirely the city’s fault, not entirely the landlord’s, and not entirely my fault. I was very desperate to get opened up. Aqua Books had been open since 1999. We were closed for maybe two months and we re-opened in a new space on Princess. I was concerned about losing my continuity.
At Christmas, I had booked a bunch of out-of-town Fringe performers. Even though I was up against some challenges, I couldn’t make the decision to say, “I can’t do it.” On the second day of The Fringe, an inspector from the City of Winnipeg saw that Aqua Books was a Fringe venue. He came across an ad and let’s just call him a stickler. We were shut down and I never re-opened.
What happened after Aqua Books closed?
After five months of various mishaps, I sunk into a deeper depression. It had been coming on for a while. I ended up in the psych ward at the Victoria General Hospital. I had lost my apartment. I’d moved out on December 31, 2012. I’d never stiffed anyone in my life, but I couldn’t pay my rent.
After I got out of the hospital, I held onto this idea that I might be able to get Aqua Books open again. I kept telling myself I still had a chance. I couldn’t talk about it. I’d put so much of myself so much into the place. I felt like if it didn’t exist, I didn’t exist. I just didn’t know what to do. I felt like I had nothing else to offer and I was done.
How have you been able to move on?
I’m in a better place now. It’s been three years since that whole thing with getting shut down. I really kicked myself. I felt like that was my fault and that I was a failure. I owed some people who did construction work money. I didn’t pay them for a year and a half, but when I had the money, I contacted them squared up. They weren’t mad. The only person who had kicked Kelly Hughes in the ass was Kelly Hughes. For the most part, nobody was being harder on me than me. Realizing that has helped me to move on.
Why are you so passionate about promoting the arts?
I really love to create new things. I don’t want to foist my vision on the world. I love to facilitate what other people are doing. I want to create a space for creative people to show their art.
There are never enough venues. I really liked to promote musicians because they needed a place where they could share their art and make mistakes. It’s a lot easier to book a gig if you’re a bunch of old guys doing cover songs than if you’re starting out.
Music used to happen at community centres, but it has become increasingly harder to find venues and book gigs. Musicians need that experience. Musicians used to be able to book weeklong gigs in Winnipeg. The singer and songwriter Steve Bell said on Monday they’d be terrible and by Saturday they’d be great.
At Aqua Books we gave Nic Dyson his first gift when he was about 17. He’s gone on and established himself and has put out two EPs and speaks out against bullying. That always gave me great satisfaction.
I do the same thing with my radio show. It’s ostensibly a music show, but I’ve probably had about 20 Fringe performers on the show. I am always interviewing people whether they’re musicians, fringe performers or poets. On Kelly Hughes Live, I’ve done lots of live interviews.
The CKUW radio show has been good. It’s a way of staying connected to the arts scene. I will admit that when I was coming out of the depression, it was sometimes hard to go, but I showed up and things got better for me.
Facebook was another way I stayed connected. It was a gateway back into the world for me. I posted a lot of introspective stuff. I am quieter on Facebook these days. I have actually been busier doing stuff again—I am in a different phase. You don’t want to be the same way all of the time.
What’s next for you?
I am working on something right now that I’m not going to be specific about. I’m still pretty shell-shocked from the way everything went down three years ago. I’m not working 100 hours a week. I’m trying to find a new way to work and participate more in the scene.
In the meantime, I am doing honest labour. I don’t mind doing that. It’s not bad for me because I need to lose a couple of pounds. My business is called Fat Man Little Truck. I do carpentry, renovations and junk removal.
I have a different plan. I think a person needs to be versatile. You need to be able to reinvent yourself—and you may have to do it more that once. I did ask myself the question: does Winnipeg need Kelly Hughes? Is there a place for me in this cultural scene? I decided yes there is. Stay tuned. You’ll be hearing more from me.