Brownstein: Argo Bookshop boosted by a community that reads together


A devoted clientele rallied around the tiny downtown Montreal store during the pandemic, to the extent that a bigger location became necessary.

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It’s not the sort of news most would expect in these ever-trying times.

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Argo Bookshop, a teeny downtown store, has moved. And not out, but rather to larger quarters just a few hops, skips and jumps away from its previous location on Ste-Catherine St.

At 55, Argo is one of the oldest indie anglo bookstores on the island. (Montreal West’s Bonder Bookstore has been around longer, having marked its 68th birthday this year.)

No small feat for any independent bookstore to keep going all these years in Montreal, let alone veteran outlets like Argo, Bonder, Drawn & Quarterly and Bibliophile that have primarily peddled English-language lit.

In the face of a decreasing anglo population and competition from big-box stores, ebooks and high-tech reading gizmos — not to mention the pandemic — few would have been surprised if Argo’s owners had raised the white flag and quit the biz.

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The “A” in Argo’s 1841A Ste-Catherine St. W. address should give customers an indication that the bookstore hasn’t exactly moved into a massive complex. Adjacent to it on the second floor is a nail/hair parlour, and a floor below it is a tattoo parlour.

Still, its space has doubled from 500 to 1,000 square feet, allowing for more titles and more room for customers to linger and schmooze. Regardless, the charm and warmth of the original Argo remains.

Thanks to avuncular founder John George, Argo attracted notice from many of its Shaughnessy Village neighbours, who would come in as much for an informative tutorial on anyone from Chaucer to Chomsky as they would to purchase pulp. There were other owners following George’s death in 2006, until Adele Prevost and Moti Lieberman bought Argo four years ago.

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“If I had to give a one-word answer as to what has kept us going, it’s ‘community,’ ” Prevost says. “There still remains such a strong community feeling around the store. I used to come here when I went to CEGEP to get textbooks. I remember Mr. George and how it was always and has still remained such a special place.”

And then came the pandemic, and Prevost and Lieberman got understandably jittery.

“But there was a feeling around the neighbourhood that people really wanted to support local independent businesses, because things were so unstable and potentially quite dangerous for us,” Prevost says. “So people rallied, and in turn we did everything we could for the community by offering local delivery and online reading events. It became a great two-way street.

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“Things really took off for us back then and we just kept growing from there. It was very surprising for us as well, but we’re immensely grateful to our community for the support we’ve received.”

Argo’s business got such a boost that more space was needed and a move became necessary.

“We put a lot of thought and effort into hopefully having people feel like this is the same Argo as it’s always been,” Lieberman says.

But times have changed in some respects. In the store’s early days, much of its trade revolved around the selling of second-hand books at bargain-basement prices. Now it’s new titles, with considerable attention being paid to sci-fi, diversity, social activist and children’s literature, in addition to bestselling fiction and non-fiction. Local lit will also be well served at Argo, now that the shop has the space to offer book launches and readings.

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“There was a period when the store was coasting on used books, but Mr. George was also adamant about focusing on new books and supporting local authors,” Lieberman says. “Now, with a more growing, diverse community, we want to make sure anyone who is coming into the store will find new books that would reflect their lives.”

While the community spirit remains, the demographics of the area have changed. Many of the store’s former regulars have moved on or died, and have been replaced by a younger, more diverse population.

“What we have noticed is that the people who come into our store now are really varied and diverse as compared to before,” Prevost says. “Most of our customers are younger. We sell mainly to people aged 18 to 35.

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“Print books aren’t going away. There will always remain a special place for the written word in the eyes of a lot of people. And that really cuts across all demographics and backgrounds.”

bbrownstein@postmedia.com

twitter.com/billbrownstein

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