First, a disclaimer: I didn’t know Cathy McKay very well – or for very long.
But it was obvious that McKay, the owner of Pages on Kensington bookstore in Calgary, who died April 13 at the age of 45 from a rare form of cancer, made lasting impressions on many people.
When asked what she will remember about her boss and friend, Sara Derrick, a Pages employee, needed only two words.
“Her passion,” said Derrick. “Her passion for books. Her passion for people.
“She was the kind of person who took control of any situation that needed it – and got things done – and always did it with a great sense of humour and a great sense of compassion.”
McKay’s husband Greg Gerrard will continue her passion for publishing as he assumes the reins of Pages, ensuring that the store suffers few disruptions. However, Pages, usually open seven days a week, will close this Sunday (April 27) for McKay’s memorial service, at the Bridgeland/Riverside Community Centre in Calgary, starting at 4 p.m.
Derrick praised McKay for inspiring booksellers to fight for what they believed in, and for inspiring publishers to chase their dreams and do the kind of publishing they wanted at a tumultuous time.
McKay purchased Pages in 2000, as national big-box bookstore chains Chapters and Indigo, now one company, were expanding rapidly and threatening the survival of many independent stores. Almost immediately, she helped Michael Hare, co-owner of the Owl’s Nest Bookstore in Calgary, form the Southern Alberta Independent Booksellers Association.
“When Cathy bought Pages, I sensed, right away, that she would be amenable to . . . do whatever we could as independent bookstore owners to stay alive while the Chapters/Indigo ramrod was going strong,” said Hare.
McKay, a native of Collingwood, Ont., also made an impact nationally as a three-time nominee for Canadian Bookseller of the Year and director of the Canadian Booksellers Association. She also assisted the Banff Publishers Workshop and was a member of the Independent Book Alliance of Canada.
Ironically, as a teenager in Ontario, McKay appeared to be headed down a different career path. She dreamed of becoming an investigative journalist and wrote for her home-town newspaper, the Owen Sound Times, and the London Free Press in high school and university. But in 1981, the University of Western Ontario grad got a job at the Calgary Public Library and moved west.
For the next two decades, migrating back and forth between Alberta and Ontario, she worked as a books wholesaler, a books department manager for a stationery store chain, a sales rep for a distributor, and finally, as a sales rep and western regional sales manager for publisher McClelland and Stewart.
Buying Pages, she told Quill and Quire in September 2001, was her proudest achievement.
“I’m having the time of my life!” said McKay.
“She had such incredible inner strength,” said Brad Wojak, another Pages employee, praising McKay for her “spitfire attitude,” her “gentle heart,” and her “honest and straight-forward” business manner.
Wojak said McKay talked about her illness but never dwelled on it.
“She was too busy working in the store,” he said.
“She never quit,” added Derrick. “She never gave up. I think even when she was sick she was helping people deal with her illness, as well as dealing with it herself. She was a very courageous woman.”
Hare said McKay was fatalistic – in a positive way. She wasn’t afraid to die, but she was still planning to visit relatives on the West Coast and attend Book Expo in Toronto.
“She knew that she was in trouble, but she was still positive and still looking forward to the future,” said Hare, who visited McKay in hospital eight days before she died.
McKay had recovered from cancer some years earlier, but the disease returned in November. Blood clots stemming from the cancer ultimately killed her, said Hare. After spending approximately two weeks at the Peter Lougheed Centre, he said, doctors deemed her healthy enough to go home April 12 – but she died suddenly at home the next day.
One can only wonder about the other ways that she would have helped the industry, had she lived longer. But if it’s any consolation, she lived her dream of being a bookstore owner and died doing what she loved.
“She put a lot of books in a lot of people’s hands,” said Derrick. “She gave a lot of customers a lot of pleasure.”
Catherine Anne McKay is survived by her husband Greg Gerrard, stepchildren Anna and Oliver Gerrard, her mother Catherine (Trink) McKay, her sisters Janet McKay and Margaret McKay, and her brother Neil McKay.
And, as her death notice said, “thousands of friends.”