What Currency Do You Value?
Gentrification, Montreal’s Mile End and a Little Bookshop That Could
On Saturday, March 13, 2021, Rue St. Viateur in Montreal’s famed Mile End neighbourhood was swarming with such a large crowd that the street had to be closed to traffic. Hundreds of Mile End residents both current and past as well as supporters from around the city had gathered to support a small, 850 square foot used bookstore: S.W Welch Books. Encouraged to read their favourite local author while waiting in line, people waited hours in the -3 degree weather simply to come in, buy some books, and show their support for this adored bookstore, one of many cultural icons threatened to close due to gentrification. The read-in protest - organized by the newly organized Mile-End Ensemble - was to draw attention and attempt to stop the soulless and insidious effects of gentrification by - and these are my words, not theirs - serious morons who have cash.
When the ‘å louer’ sign went up in the store’s window after the building’s new owners - the notorious Shiller-Lavy firm - slapped the store with an untenable 150% rent increase, Stephen (the store’s owner) saw no option but to close his business he’s been running for 37 years. The media outcry was, literally, immediate both on social media platforms and on all of the city’s major and minor media outlets. At first, when interviewed by a journalist from CultMtl, Daniel Lavy, from his vacation home in Florida, was completely derisive; he said a used bookstore is a poor business model, he compared books to obsolete technologies like VHS, and he seriously questioned if anyone even reads anymore[!]. Clearly, the read-in demolished his statements which unwittingly revealed the successful businessman to also be a man of profound ignorance. This comes as no surprise as we all know that most gentrifiers see property as money and community, history and culture as nothing if it doesn’t pay off. Like Fran Leibowitz said, a Picasso goes up in an auction and the room is silent; when it’s sold for millions everyone applauds - they applaud the money, not the art.
Shortly after, succumbing to the overwhelming media scorn, Lavy changed his tune entirely, and amicably negotiated with Stephen an affordable deal that would allow him to remain for two more years until Stephen’s retirement. Funnily enough, Lavy told him that he in fact loved the store, that it was like ‘walking into a museum!’ Well, museums are poor business models too, Lavy. While this settlement was announced days before the protest, it was clear Lavy made the move just to shut people up. Didn’t work, the people showed up and spoke up in the hope that shark landlords like Shiller Lavy can see that cultural currency is infinitely more potent and meaningful than capitalistic sheen. Most of the residents and businesses that made the Mile End The Mile End have been kicked out due to massively increased rent and have been replaced by high-end and franchise boutique stores, restaurants and wealthy newcomer residents renovating triplexes into condos. While Lavy was quoted in saying he’s improved the neighbourhood (The new windows at QDC Burger are ‘cute!’ The Lululemon is ‘cute!’) he - like most gentrifiers - is completely oblivious to the fact he is actively ruining the neighbourhood he was drawn to and the people who made it who cannot afford to live there any longer.
Old story: it is often artists who turn unknown neighbourhoods into cultural hotspots and when hot enough along come the gentrifiers to capitalize; they approach the neighbourhood with intentions so opposite those of the culture-makers, all the soul and rainbows are sucked from the sidewalks into the hoovering, indiscriminate cakeholes of money-drooling Monopoly Men. One of the many reasons I think there was such a resounding response and support for Welch’s, why the store became the face and catalyst for social change, is because in many ways it was the subtle yet constant heartbeat of Montreal’s world-renowned music scenes - through its doors flowed streams of the city’s most talented back when it was located on “The Main” (St. Laurent across from the iconic Schwartz’s smoked meat shop) in the 90’s and then the Mile End from 2007 onward. Beyond the artists both known and unknown, the store’s been home to families, expat orphans, marginalized people, nutjobs, businessmen and homeless people alike.
The bookstore is a place where people feel at home, where you’re encouraged to linger, sit and read on the couch, and through serendipitous magic discover a life-changing book you never knew you needed. Important that it’s used books too - there’s something about previously loved books, about cherishing the non-new that has its own comforting charm. Welch’s has a similar, unpompous ambiance that also filled local “heartbeat” businesses Cagibi and Monastiraki until they, too, were shut down, R.I.P.
Of course, it’s a business and Stephen a shrewd businessman (37 years and going speaks for itself), but its true valued currency is knowledge - literature, history, fantasy, sci-fi, history, science, art, poetry, philosophy, erotica, non-fiction, theory - currency which Daniel Lavy equates to a poor business model. For people like me, from a young age books transported me from atmospheres of abuse, they were portals to other worlds, they still make life more bearable, and I’m sure most people who frequent the store will say something similar. Money men like Lavy are just on another frequency altogether and in a way, I feel kind of sorry for the clear lack of substance in their lives.
(images of the read-in: @wanderbookspace)
A Brief History
During the political uncertainty of the ‘95 referendum, anglos were leaving Montreal in droves, the economy was precarious and rent was thus staggeringly low. I have friends who reminisce about paying 200/month for a 6.5 right on St. Laurent in the Plateau where, back then, most of the music was happening. This attracted young punk expats from all over Canada, musicians, artists, orphans and drifters to make Montreal their home. Soon after came the independent record labels Alien8 and Constellation representing powerfully experimental, anti-capitalist and deeply politically-engaged bands, most notably Godspeed You! Black Emperor, the band I would say is responsible for the rich unfolding of Montreal’s music legacy as we know it today. As a teen in Ontario, I didn’t know a single art-kid who didn’t have a hard-on for everything Alien8 and Constellation. Welch’s predates this all by a decade, but I bring it up because the store is deeply intertwined with the artists that put Montreal on the international music map.
I first visited Montreal as a teen because the drinking age was 18 as opposed to Onatrio’s 19. My memories are of going into Welch’s on The Main and falling in love with it, and being drunk by 10pm. At 20 I moved here with friends who started their own music venue, Friendship Cove (first in Little Italy near the Home Depot, later in Griffintown). At 20 I moved here for good (16 years later still toughing it out, a love-hate relationship). The best years were the first few where I knew no one and my regular outings were to Welch’s and Cheap Thrills as often as possible and to all music shows - more often in lofts or industrial spaces than stages - where I would just close my eyes, take it in and stagger out full of music that blew my brains apart. A consummate book-whore, I’d often sell my books to Welch’s for grocery money when I was poor, buy them back when I was flush. When Welch’s was on the main, it was open until 21h, where all sorts of freaks would loaf until a show started nearby as well as freaks of all nature, like the wildly talented, tragic and loved Ryan Larkin.
At heart, Stephen’s an LSD kid from the ’70s, he’s a gifted artist (dropped out of NASCAD), he’s pretty punk by nature, independent and against The Man, community-minded, and the ethos of the store reflects that which is also complementary to the anti-capitalist ethos of the bands the emerged from Montreal in the 90’s. Most artists are by extension readers and the laid-back, living-room, second-hand vibe of the bookstore is made for the type. Name dropping is lame but you’d be hard-pressed to name any Montreal band whose members didn’t often frequent the store. If it’s the music scene that was unintentionally responsible for gentrification to follow on its heels, Welch’s was always in the heart of it. Beyond the store’s inextricability with Montreal’s artists, the store is simply of the city. Stephen knows the best ‘fish guy,’ ‘meat guy,’ ‘car guy,’ outlaw ‘hash guy,’ you name it and they all love him.
That’s what’s cool about Welch’s - a used bookstore is not a niche market - it’s for grandmas and children, famous directors, rock stars, authors, log ladies, lonely old bachelors, neurodivergents, students, cats, dogs - everyone. I lived in the Mile End from 2003-2007, visited the store every day, and I started helping out at the store in 2008 and stayed for ten years. On that auspicious day in 2008, I had scurried in with the kid I was nannying because it was raining. I remember very clearly I had the kid on my shoulders and he was pulling at my hair when Stephen said, “So you’re a mother’s helper, eh? How would you like to be my helper?” It was a fated moment. That day Stephen wrote in the notebook he always keeps in his breast pocket - “Today I captured a faerie.” It couldn’t have been more perfect - he knew I was a long-time customer and that I was knowledgeable. I was in school studying literature and creative writing at the time, my life had been, was at that time, and is steeped in books. From there launched the most meaningful friendship I’ve ever had.
Even though I lived in Pointe St. Charles, I’d bike 7k to the store and back 5 times a week. Stephen and I quickly became best pals - we’d laugh and gossip like old hens, he saw me through many a heartbreak and betrayal and cried big fat tears with me at times (don’t let his gruff exterior deceive you). He’d often bring my broke-ass leftovers from his family dinners the night before which I’d scarf down. Slowly I learned all his crazy stories and he mine - the man’s a sneak and hilarious, his breadth of knowledge wildly impressive. Slowly I learned the ins and outs of antiquarian books, what to look for, why and how. The store is full of so many treasures. It was such a relief to have my closest friend be thirty some odd years my senior - he was above all the stupid gossip art-ego scene-shit that regularly shook my nerves. I’d often come in the store full of piss n’ vinegar, hair wild from biking and road rage, and would curse all my backstabbers to the moon to which he’d just chuckle and call me ‘pooky.’ Other names for me were ‘pepper pot’ and ‘apple.’ He can handle my raging fire which makes sense because he’s married to the love of his life - Beany - who not even the world’s toughest would dare mess with despite her being 5’2 and Stephen 6’7. Stephen always reminds me that it’s Beany who is in fact the Boss of Everything.
[Me n’ Stephen, pic by Vince Tinguey]
In 1984, while selling books at a flea market as they were doing at the time, Beany told Stephen it was time to open an actual bookstore because she wanted to have a family. So he did, and S.W Welch was born. The shop first opened in Snowdon, then NDG, then in the Plateau where it stayed a popular fixture of the scene for 15 years. The store did so well that Stephen could support his wife and two kids with the store’s profits alone. Skyrocketing city municipal tax was the reason he and many other businesses had to shut down on the main. For a while after that he didn’t have the store, then a friend scouted this junk shop with massively cheap rent up north in a neighbourhood called the Mile End. He decided to take it and Beany thought he was crazy - at the time the Mile End wasn’t the Mile End but as luck would have it, the artists who once lived in the plateau had also migrated up to the Mile End and soon it was a Plateau 2.0.
The international fame of many bands who lived and worked in the area again attracted young art kids (this time more trust fund than punk rock) the way the plateau had in the ’90s. The second wave of record labels and successful bands resulted from it (making FAR different music, the kids actually making stuff with ‘90’s nostalgia since most of them were born in the ’90s, creating a wonky full circle in a way) making the Mile End a (sometimes nauseating) beehive of cool kids and tourists. All visitors to Pop Montreal, Suoni Per Il Popolo, Osheaga, etc would come to the Mile End and to the store. The Mile End became so famous that, before COVID, tour buses were regularly showing up with groups of tourists from around the world, which was great for Stephen.
Just like the Plateau, when the Mile End ‘scene’ got commodified, the artists who made it were kicked out due to rent increases, most migrated up north once again in search of affordable rent and - with UBISOFT and the whole industrial east end of St. Viateur being taken over by design studios of every ilk (in the buildings where poor artists once had their studios) - the Mile End was no longer the art-hub Mile End. To bear witness to the transformation has been surreal.
For the past few years, residents and businesses have been getting evicted because of landlord sharks like Lavy. When the ‘å louer’ sign went up in the store’s window, local writer and long-time customer Taras Grascoe posted a picture on IG with the caption, “There goes the neighbourhood.” It seemed like that was the last straw. The neighbourhood had been pillaged, Lavy sucked the soul right out of it, and fucking with Welch’s set everyone off. An outpouring of love and defiance echoed through the city capturing the eye of all media outlets and rightfully shaming Lavy. I don’t think Lavy felt an ounce of shame but his ego felt the public burn and at least it resulted in a win. Welch will remain for two more years until he retires, maybe someone will continue in his place or maybe the name will go with him, and most likely it will be replaced by a beauty and wellness boutique, a bougie pizzeria or a store specializing in haute couture fanny packs as featured in SSENSE.
Regardless, this is a big victory with big implications. The Mile End Ensemble is working toward other such fights for Mile Enders facing renovictions whether it be tenants or independent businesses. Seeing that three-block line of people demonstrating their love of the dusty old bookstore, insisting on its relevance and all businesses like it, joining together to defy the big money-man was an immensely heartwarming sight. Moreso it proves that people united do have the power to fight all the Powerful Oz’s who are ultimately just little men behind big screens. There’s that saying that women are most afraid of being killed while men are most afraid of being shamed. Shaming Lavy, in this case, worked.
The bookstore is one of this city’s heartbeats, it has my own heart, it represents a decade of my own personal history and the most supportive and strong friendship I’ve been fortunate to have. I’ve made many friends from my years there, met people of all ages creeds and class from all over the world who often had valuable or obscure knowledge to share, I’ve even slept there on the couch often when I was too drunk to bike home (Stephen had a sleeping bag for me there just in case). Who can say that about most businesses? S.W Welch Bookseller is so much more than just a business, and it’s a dying breed. As with endangered species, places like Welch’s, neighbourhoods like the Mile-End, are dying due to the never-ending gluttony of unimaginative, capitalistic greed. While this particular story has a happy ending, the overarching narrative is grim.