“A lot of customers are very loyal to the free baguette,” says Jay. The 20-year-old has shoulder-length, pumpkin-coloured hair. She’s wearing a grey scally cap and a tight black polo while she works behind the counter at Co-op La Maison Vert, where a basket filled with anti-Bill 21 buttons sits cradled between jars of homemade baked goods.
The free baguettes Jay is referring to are two days old. They’re delivered to the NDG area co-op from a bakery in Hochelaga-Masionneuve. Jay smiles apologetically as she explains that the baguettes are actually pretty crusty, but that a lot of customers enjoy making croutons with them.
Despite their popularity, Maison La Co-op Vert has always been much more than a place to get free baguettes.
“We did a visioning exercise together as staff, and we all agree the most important aspect is the community space people can use for workshops, documentaries, environmental issues or as a meeting place. We have regulars who’ve been meeting here for years to have coffee and tea. Some of them move away and then they come back and visit and speak fondly of it,” says Jay.
The solidarity co-op, the first of it’s kind, was founded just over twenty years ago, after Quebec’s infamous 1998 ice storm left many Montrealers stranded without heat and electricity for weeks.
During the storm’s aftermath, the co-op’s founders noticed how isolated and lonely many of the area’s residents were. They blamed it on a system that rewarded individualism and resulted in weak social links. A group of NDG residents banded together and decided to do something about it, by creating a place that would breathe new life into their neighbourhood.
There is a piano in one corner of the co-op and a children’s play area filled with books and toys in another. The chalkboard behind the counter is filled with dates and information about the co-ops workshops, which include titles like, “How to make your own indoor kitchen garden.” But most of the co-ops square-footage resembles a regular commercial store.
The bright and airy space is filled with rows of bulk goods, environmentally friendly household, hair and body cleaning products, fair trade coffee, and local art and gift cards. There are ecological and seasonal specialty items on offer too, as well as organic meat, produce, and gardening items. Water filters, composting toilets, and micro-brewed beer are available for purchase. The co-op also hosts an outdoor farmer’s market and serves as a drop-off point for organic baskets.
And true to its model, the co-op doesn’t have a single owner. Customers purchase memberships, and members get discounts on goods. A governing board consisting of staff and members make all the decisions related to the space and how it functions. Jay says that when purchasing items for the store, staff always keep environmental, as well geo-political, issues in mind.
“It’s great to get quinoa, but if it comes from a place where the workers aren’t paid well…” says Jay, letting her frown express the rest of her thoughts on the matter.
The idea behind La Co-op Maison Vert is to care for the environment—as well as other human beings.
Jay points out that one of the co-op's great features is its coffee bank. “The idea is to pay it forward,” she says. When customers buy a coffee, they can purchase another one to put in the bank for someone who can’t afford it.
Jay says that while the co-op’s café has a limited menu at the moment, consisting of Jamaican patties, grilled cheese sandwiches, and soup, it has a great coffee bar. A latte goes for $3.25 and a filter coffee for $1.65. Jay says the prices are as low as possible for a reason.
“We believe the community aspect is reflected in how much it costs to sit down here and have discussions with people. Low prices send a message that you don’t have to have money to hang out here and meet people and make new friends.”
Coop La Maison Vert is situated at 5785 Sherbrooke Street West. It is open daily from 10 am to 7 pm.