For the love of indie bookstores

A look into how Montreal’s small bookshops have been coping during the pandemic

Madison McLauchlan, Science & Technology Editor

Entering a small bookstore is like dropping a pebble into a calm pond. The ripples start immediately: The door bells chime a sound of greeting, prompting the lone cashier to look up and drawing disinterested glances from other customers. Outside air whooshes in, momentarily ruffling the pages of books on display. Brief greetings are exchanged as one settles in to browse the shelves of beloved novels, and the bookstore regains its serenity.

Such was the scene at S.W. Welch, an independent bookstore in Montreal’s Mile End, on a cold March afternoon one year into the COVID-19 pandemic. Although the capacity was capped at eight and customers were careful to respect social distancing in the store, the magic of searching through shelves of books for hidden gems remains an enchanting experience.

This atmosphere of literary love in Montreal has been overshadowed by the looming threat of gentrification for several years. On Feb. 27, S.W. Welch’s owner, Stephen Welch, announced that an exorbitant rent hike may force the store to close. The news of the potential closure came as a shock to Montreal’s small non-essential businesses, which were only allowed to reopen stores on Feb. 8 after an extended lockdown.

Before the pandemic, indie bookstores were already facing competition from big-box retailers that offer books alongside a range of other essential products. According to Charles de Brabant, executive director of McGill’s Bensadoun School of Retail Management, the retail industry had been diverging into two extremes for years. At one end of the spectrum are companies like Walmart and Amazon, which prioritize efficiency and convenience; at the other end, small, independent businesses focus on customer experience and loyalty. Big-box book retailers like Indigo and Barnes & Noble found themselves in the middle of the spectrum and shifted their focus to customer experience, competing with small bookstores.

“During the pandemic, what ended up happening is that the convenience efficiency extreme thrived because those were the essential goods,” de Brabant said in an interview with The McGill Tribune. “Experience was mostly non-essential.”

Although all non-essential retailers were forced to close their doors, indie bookstores had the disadvantage of weaker online presences compared to big-box stores, both essential and non-essential. Venturing out to chat with book lovers and discover new reads became a luxury of the past.

Montreal boasts a rich diversity of independent bookstores, both French and English, that are sought out by students, neighbourhood natives, and tourists alike. These bookstores continue to lend character to the city’s different boroughs despite the ubiquity of online retailers and e-books.

The Word, located just a few blocks away from McGill’s downtown campus, is lined floor to ceiling with books: New, used, and rare. From English poetry to philosophy textbooks, the bookshop has been serving the Milton-Parc community for almost 50 years.

When the government first imposed a mandatory lockdown, The Word quickly set up online alternatives, selling Indie Book Boxes with surprise titles and bookish goodies that ship all over the Island of Montreal.

Brendan King-Edwards, manager of The Word and son of the original owners, explained how measures to contain the pandemic forced their business to pivot online.

“What we ended up doing is selling a lot of surprise book boxes, and having people purchase books online and doing a lot of deliveries ourselves,” King-Edwards said in an interview with the Tribune. “Then eventually we started doing deliveries through a courier service. The challenges were [...] definitely logistics, on the website end of things, communicating with our customers, and figuring out the best ways to do delivery, which we weren't doing previously at all.”

Despite the challenges of extended closures and pandemic restrictions, The Word prioritizes giving back to the community. Ten per cent of Book Box sales in February 2020 and 2021 went toward #DareEverySoultoAchieve (DESTA), a Montreal community group that helps Black youth achieve professional goals.

“We've gotten a ton of community support, both online and in person, and especially right at the beginning,” King-Edwards said. “People were generally genuinely concerned about how we are doing. We've definitely felt a lot of love from the community. That has really helped sustain us as well for the last year.”

Argo Bookshop, the oldest independent English bookstore in Montreal, was equally affected by COVID-19 restrictions that limited customer capacity and discouraged non-essential shopping. Moti Lieberman, co-owner of Argo, noted the shift in ambience within the store.

“The nature of the business has changed a lot with the pandemic, as even when we've been allowed to let people in the store, fewer people have been out and around,” Lieberman wrote in an email to the //Tribune.// “A lot of the enjoyment of the store is in getting to talk with people about what they're interested in and about the books, so that's been fairly dispiriting.”

The tiny but welcoming shop in Shaughnessy Village prides itself on promoting books by racialized and queer authors, as well as indie reads that may not appear on bestseller lists. What used to be a lounge area for Montrealers to relax with a book or catch up with friends has been empty for months; now, author events and literary discussions have moved online.

In Mile End, Librairie Drawn & Quarterly and its second store for young readers are unique additions to the literary scene, selling both English and French books as well as graphic novels from the Quebec-born D+Q publishing imprint. Kennedy Rooke, the flagship store manager, and Luke Langille, the product buyer, described the difficulty of adapting to the current restrictions.

“With consecutive waves of the pandemic here in Montreal, we’ve gone through permutations of closures, partial closures, and limited in-store browsing,” Rooke and Langille wrote in an email to the Tribune. “We went from being a bookstore which mainly served customers in-store, to what sometimes feels like a logistics company.”

A popular misconception is that online retailers like Amazon are driving small, independent bookstores out of business. King-Edwards feels that this belief ignores the nuances of what customers are seeking in their shopping experience.

“We have a niche clientele, and [...] we're not interested in selling a million copies of Harry Potter,” King-Edwards said. “As far as what's going on online, what we've seen during the pandemic is hopeful in the sense that people are becoming increasingly aware of their local businesses and [...] not immediately shopping online for something they can get right around the corner.”

According to Lieberman, many customers are choosing to support local businesses over larger corporations.

“I think as awareness of Amazon's practices has grown, and particularly a lot of messaging from publishers, authors, and just grass-roots community efforts during the pandemic in favour of supporting small bookstores has sunk in, [business] has become steadier,” Lieberman wrote.

Another misleading stereotype is that young people do not read books anymore. Although millennials and Gen Z consume more news through online outlets than previous generations, print books are still favoured over e-books in these age categories. When the pandemic hit, many students turned to offline activities such as reading to escape from the constant, all-consuming demands of online school, remote work, and social media.

“Really, the numbers did not go down at all, you know, people kept buying the physical books,” King-Edwards said. “Clearly, people who are studying humanities and philosophy and all this stuff that we're carrying still prefer to have the physical books. And I think now even more than ever, people need a break from their screens.”

There is something special about visiting a small bookstore that online discounts or free shipping can never replace. For many readers, interactions with strangers, like store clerks, can ease pandemic-induced isolation and have been shown to boost overall happiness.

“Amazon probably knows me better than any bookseller would know me,” de Brabant said. “[But] it’s nice to talk to [...] empathetic, genuine people that love books, right? For me as a consumer, I love to come in [...] and see you smiling at me.”

In Canada, the numbers seem to reflect an increase in sales for independent bookstores in 2020, challenging the notion of a “failing business model” invoked by landlords such as Danny Lavy, who insinuated that bookstores are as outdated as video stores. Lavy is co-owner of Shiller Lavy, the company that owns the building S.W. Welch rents from.

However, the success of independent book stores during the pandemic would have been impossible without government assistance. The federal government offered interest-free loans up to $60,000 through the Canada Emergency Business Account (CEBA), and more than 840,000 small businesses applied for help. These incentives played a crucial role in keeping smaller establishments afloat during extended shutdowns, especially those facing pre-pandemic debt and loss of earnings.

“I think the Canadian governments at all levels realized that if you are going to ask people or companies to stop their activities for a period of time, because of things that are beyond their control, you owe it to them to help them,” de Brabant said.

Although government rent moratoriums and wage subsidies also provided a certain level of cushion for many companies, this could not protect every small shop. In Quebec, building owners renting out commercial spaces have no limits on raising rent, which has forced out businesses in rapidly gentrifying areas like the Mile End.

Booksellers across the city believe that unchecked rent hikes are the main threat to the indie bookstores that shape Montreal’s literary hub.

“The government needs to impose regulations on landlords,” Brooke and Langille wrote. “We should have taxes on vacant commercial buildings.”

Lieberman added that Argo’s building owner has been sympathetic during the pandemic and has worked with them to preserve the shop, but this level of understanding by landlords is not the norm in Montreal.

“If we want there to be character to our neighbourhoods, [...] we need to be protective of what small shops can offer,” Lieberman wrote. “While we've had a good relationship to date with our [landlord], to be more at the mercy of the landlords in the face of a changing city is a sobering thought.”

The love of Montreal’s small bookstore community can triumph over greed. In a Facebook post on March 8, Stephen Welch announced that renegotiations with his landlord had yielded an agreement on lower rent, allowing the store to stay open for another two years, after which Mr. Welch plans to retire. Welch attributed the revision to a combination of media coverage and community support for the Mile End bookshop. In fact, Mile End Ensemble led a read-in protest on March 13, where participants each brought a book to read in line to showcase the importance of small bookstores.

“The outpouring of love and concern by so many people to our plight has been amazing and in the end effective achieving this result,” Welch wrote in his post. “I will endeavour to stock the store with unexpected titles, great reads, and unusual finds.”

S.W. Welch’s success story serves as a cautionary tale for realtors who underestimate the power of indie bookstores to forge community connections and to define the spirit of a neighbourhood.

“Bookstores serve as a focus for the local community, a place for people to come together, meet, and have discussions,” Lieberman wrote. “We also can help draw attention to issues or authors through what books we have to offer in the store, so we offer a lot of books on queer studies, social justice issues, and more. [With] a diversity of stores and viewpoints, we can help to represent people's thoughts in the city.”

As more and more of our population is vaccinated against COVID-19, the light at the end of the tunnel for small businesses continues to brighten. The eventual return of in-person events will inspire readers once more, and bookstores will experience a resurgence of chatty customers dropping in on a whim, for one essential that cannot be bought or sold: A love of reading.

Design by Ruobing Chen