Rents, Recycling Buildings and Retailing Books

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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.

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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
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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

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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.

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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.

12 comments

  1. Hahaha – porn theatre. Le Beaver. Good times.

  2. Second hand bookstores tend to exist near higher education. I do not know if Irvine has much. I do know that Guelph, Ontario always had second hand bookstores, even in the 80s with fewer than 100 000 people. It has a mid-size university.

  3. It is a paradox though. Dalhousie Street near the Byward Market in Ottawa had a lot of lovely second-hand bookshops, though they are getting forced out now. I’m impressed that there are still quite a few second-hand bookshops along Mont-Royal, mostly just a few streets east of St-Denis, and a very good one just south of St-Denis on rue de la Roche. The best, though, is a bit west of St-Denis, Porte de tête, mostly used, some new, mostly French, some other languages including English. Intellectual, artistic and contestataire orientation.

    There is a nice independent bookshop on Bernard near the Outremont intersection, appropriately a bit messy and eclectic. La Librairie d’Outremont? Hasn’t been pushed out yet by the sellers of “lifestyle” dross.

  4. Don’t forget The Seventh Sandglass, operated out of the front of a basement apartment just south of the Mile-End library.

  5. Oh how I wish S.W. Welch stayed open past 7 pm! After-supper book browsing is one of life’s great experiences.

    Also, there is a low-budget used-bookstore on Parc between St-Viateur and Fairmount.

    The main lost a major cultural asset when S.W. Welch moved north to St-Viateur. I feel that the main is at risk of being turned into a corporate-chain dominated urban minimall, thus losing it’s uniqueness and vibrancy that makes it so important to the life of Montreal.

  6. Masson has some interesting bookstores. Librarie Paulines (new) has a good selection of Québec authors and a large religious section. They also have a nice café. Limasson (new) specialises in children’s books as well as books on Montréal and Québec. They also have fine stationary and writing implements. For used books, there is Librarie du Vieux Boucle and Le Puits du Livre. I’ve seen a couple near Cinéma Beaubien but I’ve never checked them out.

    Take heart Sid, all is not lost. American Apparel is no longer on The Main.

  7. The bookshops on Beaubien near the cinema are worth a look.

    Yeah, there was a serious attempt at corporate takeover on St-Laurent, but American Apparel has failed, as has the ridiculously pristine bonbon shop Sucre Bleu. With some luck some of the chains hawking trendy but poorly-made clothing will also go belly-up with changing trends. Hope local businesses can return.

    I was sad to see the loss of a particular Portuguese shop just south of Segall and Frenco, on the same side of the street. Sure, they had some gordorful overdecorated kitsch, but they also had good Portuguese earthenware dishes.

    The hardware at the corner of Marie-Anne has some, but not a very complete line.

  8. Thanks, Mary, for a nice post. Glad to know SW Welch has found a new home since I last visited it. Living in Southern California myself, I can attest to what you say about Irvine. But does any newish “planned community” anywhere have such bookstores, or is a supply of older, fully amortized, “surplus” buildings that can be re-purposed (love that word!)a crucial prerequisite?

    Just as developers in many places are supposed to include a proportion of “affordable” housing units, maybe they should provide some “affordable” storefronts–but more likely we have to wait for the local economy to go sour enough that landlords will do anything to fill the vacancies left by fancier tenants….

  9. Way back in Death and Life of Americn Cities, Jane Jacobs pointed out the problem of grocery stores in “designated space” in housing projects. You need just the right mix of clientele and low rents.

    In the medium run, I suspect that a lot of the dead shopping centers and aging light industrial space in the suburbs could be used for retail like bookstores. But that would also require densifying the neighborhoods to increase the clientele for the stores. And that, as we know, is a long process.

    Thanks for the other book stores suggestions, everyone. I wanted to limit the stores I talked about to a few within a couple of blocks of each other. But the Librairie d’Outremont is a place where we’ve spent many an evening browsing, and the other used bookstores are good to know about.

    Mary

  10. FWIW the aforementioned Guelph, Ontario was also a planned community (founded 1827 by John Galt on behalf of the Canada Company) and does indeed have a pretty good used book culture – my personal favourite used store there being Macondo Books. Of course, Guelph does predate Irvine by some 140 years.

  11. I don’t know Guelph, but I don’t imagine that the heirs of the original developers still control the stock of commercial buildings. Over time buildings have probably aged differently, some must have been replaced, others have changed use. All of this allows for a variation in rents, including some which are low enough for a book store to be viable. And Guelph was designed in the day when no one went faster in a city than a horse could travel. That meant a much more compact urban fabric–a walkable city–which is conducive to the kind of foot traffic and book browsing that contribute to the health of bookstores.

    In Irvine, the developer controls most if not all commercial space, setting rents and mandating what kind of client is good, and what kind is not. This means more or less uniform rents–too high for the kind of risky endeavor a book store is. And you have to drive everywhere in Irvine. It is not a walkable city, even if the walking trails are lovely.

    Mary

  12. I really loves books and i always go visit books stores. Wish they wont closed down because now people loves to read on the net instead of books. sad reality really

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