This article and photos are a special guest contribution by local author, Mary Soderstrom. Mary Soderstrom is a Montreal writer who’s spent years strolling around Mile End. Her most recent book is The Walkable City: From Haussmann’s Boulevards to Jane Jacobs Streets and Beyond (Véhicule Press).
Try to find a small, independent bookstore in a high rent neighborhood, and you’ll likely be disappointed even if the folks who live nearby are great readers. That’s because bookstores have very small—sometime non-existent—profit margins. The trick for the dreamers who love books so much they want to share them with others, is to find a storefront cheap enough to be affordable but near neighborhoods where readers live or congregate.
Mile End, luckily for Montreal readers, is one of the rare places where these two necessities come together. In the space of a few blocks, you’ll find two eclectic retailers of new books, one English (Drawn and Quarterly) and one French (Librairie L’écume des jours,) a fine used book store (S.W. Welch) and a big, Quebec-owned chain store (Renaud-Bray) housed in a converted porn theatre.
Drawn and Quarterly: an eclectic mix of mostly English books run by the publisher of high class comic books. 211 Bernard West.
(Top) S.W. Welch: used books, mostly English. Formerly a fixture on the Main, the store moved to St. Viateur in 2007. 225 St-Viateur West
Librairie L’écume des jours: A French bookstore with new books, book
events, and a good children’s selection whose name was inspired by
French writer Boris Vian’s cult novel. 125, rue Saint-Viateur O
Renaud-Bray, A mostly French chain whose busy store was reclaimed from a former porn movie theatre. 5117, avenue du Parc
The importance of low rents and availability of recyclable space is something I didn’t realize until a couple of years ago when I spent some time in Irvine, California. This Southern California city of 180,000 is often cited as the most successful planned development in North America. It has lots of clean, high paying jobs, shopping, schools, recreational facilities, and a density higher than the usual suburban sprawl. The population is extremely well educated too. But finding a good book store is not easy. There are a couple of Barnes and Nobles, and the University of California campus has a good store, but for all my looking around I couldn’t find the sort of customer-centered bookstore I like to shop in.
Irvine’s elegantly landscaped shopping centers are home to chain bookstores, not small independent ones.
If Mile End continues to go upmarket, higher rents may eventually imperil the neighborhood’s wealth of librairies. For the moment, though, they’re shining examples of what Jane Jacobs meant when she talked about the importance of neighborhoods with buildings of varying ages and uses to the health and liveliness of a city.