Any savvy Montrealer knows the best way to walk from downtown to the Plateau is to cut through McGill and head down Milton Street. This unassuming stretch of road is the heart of the McGill Ghetto, a lovely yet infamous neighbourhood that is home to a disproportionate number of McGill University students. Lovely because, modern intrusions aside, its streets are lined by flirtatious Victorian greystones and gentlemanly Edwardian apartment blocks. Infamous because, well, this is where you’ll find the kinds of students who are both monied and lazy enough to live within eyeshot of campus.
I digress—not all Ghetto residents are McGill Girls. In fact, Milton Street is where you can find all of the other McGill students who do not own Ugg boots or an SUV with New York plates. They trickle down the street all day long, counting the blocks from the Milton Gates to Park Avenue—Lorne, Aylmer, Durocher, Hutchison—after which they disperse into the city beyond. Every hour or so, classes end, the dam opens and the trickle becomes a torrent. Hundreds of people spill east out of campus onto Milton Street, walking and cycling. If I pick the right time to walk down Milton, I could run into someone I know on every block.
That walk is so familiar, it has been etched into my unconscious. When I go to McGill, I get off the 80 on Park and Milton, next to the pleasant Iraqi café and the 24-hour Second Cup that looks like a ski lodge. One block: Hutchison. Apartments on all sides but one, where a vacant asphalt lot sits surrounded by chainlink, a schoolyard obsolete. Another block, Durocher this time, and I hear music coming from the old Notre-Dame-de-la-Salette school, a Modernist quirk that is now a ballet academy. Green’s Superette is across the street in a grey-faced Victorian building that doesn’t sag quite so severely now that it has been renovated.
Milton between Park and Durocher
Crossing Durocher, The Word is on the way to Aylmer. A stout green adjunct to the yellow apartment building next door, The Word is the spiritual heart of the McGill Ghetto, a bounty of used books much beloved by McGill students, professors and Montreal readers as a whole. It opened in the spring of 1975 when Adrian and Luci King-Edwards moved their used-books business from their apartment into the recently-vacated Chinese laundry next door. Writer Ian McGillis recounts its origins:
It was a time when, as Luci says, “The McGill ghetto was mostly rooming houses, a little seedy, and things were cheap enough that you felt you could do what you wanted. We borrowed a thousand dollars from Adrian’s parents to start up the store. It’s amazing when I look back on it.”
“The rent for our old apartment, a 4 1/2, was a hundred dollars a month,” recalls Adrian. “Things were definitely looser then. A lot of our customers would come in without shoes on. It was that kind of time. They’d come in not just to buy books, but to get advice generally.”
The neighborhood, and rents, may have changed, but the King-Edwards haven’t looked back since the day Luci realized that the store was supporting the family to the point where she could quit her PhD studies at McGill.
It’s true that anyone stepping into The Word–be they hardcore bibliophiles, wide-eyed McGill freshmen, or one of the neighborhood’s many “personalities”– is entering an unavoidably interactive atmosphere. It’s a very homey space, as Michael Harris says, the size of an average living room, with no sign outside to draw attention (the original one was stolen, the second ran afoul of the language police, so for years now they haven’t bothered, which only enhances the store’s cool factor) nor markers inside to guide customers to specific sections. If you want to know where Anthropology is, you’ve got to either figure it out yourself or ask. What’s more, the mechanical white-noise sounds of the modern age haven’t penetrated. There’s no buzzing overhead fluorescent light, no cash register, no computer, no music (except when one of Adrian and Luci’s twin teenage sons is helping out in the overstock room upstairs, likely as not blasting the Wu-Tang Clan). Even the phone is a practically extinct non-touch-tone model, with a reassuringly old-fashioned ringing tone. So there’s a silence seldom experienced anymore. A few find it uncomfortable, others find it induces a browsing trance. Many feel compelled to fill it with conversation. The result is a rare intimacy between staff and customer.
The Word is Milton Street’s centre of gravity. On all but the coldest of days, there are usually a few people standing outside, chatting or browing through the legendary selection of fifty-cent books arranged neatly on the ledge outside the store window. “Entire libraries” have been built from this ledge, writes McGillis. A recent visit revealed books including True North Not Strong and Free, by Peter C. Newman; Abnormal Psychology, Second Edition, Rosenbam and Seligman eds.; and Super-Eye Adventure: Prehistoric Island by Jay Lerhold.
Milton between Aylmer and University
Passing The Word, as I eventually must, I cross Aylmer and its prim rowhouses. Up ahead is Lola Rosa, a vegetarian restaurant once staffed and patronized almost entirely by women. (This, and its once brightly-painted interior, inspired a friend to refer to it as “the pink vagina.”) A couple of years ago it was bought by two men from France who caused some angst among regular customers when they repainted the interior and considered adding meat to the menu. In warm months, the restaurant’s front window is removed and lunchtime chatter drifts into the street.
The last block of Milton, past Lorne Avenue, is an odd one. On one side of the street is a particularly distinguished apartment building that looks like it took a wrong turn on the way to Knightsbridge. On the other is a postwar highrise at the base of which is McGill Pizza, an opportunistically-named diner whose low prices do not make its food any more edible. There is better pizza on Milton Street (the incomparable Amelio’s), better breakfasts and hamburgers (Milton Place) and even better coffee (Second Cup, Presse Café, Café Rencontre—take your pick!), but I guess it’s convenient, and having McGill in the name gives it some veneer of legitimacy.
Outside of McGill Pizza, a bike lane runs down Milton, which reminds me that it isn’t just pedestrians who lay claim to this street: cyclists use it in abundance, too, riding from the Plateau and points east into campus and the downtown core. Although traffic on Milton runs in one direction—east, towards the university—cyclists leaving McGill ride along it for several blocks before heading north to Prince Arthur Street. In a brilliantly common-sense move that still surprises me to this day, city officials took note and installed a reverse bike lane that allows Milton Street cyclists to ride safely and legally against the flow of traffic.
This is what I think about as I approach University Street, waiting for traffic to clear before I stroll past the people clustered around the dour, wrought-iron Milton Gates. I head into the bowels of McGill—but I’ll be back to make the return trip down Milton Street, to count the blocks back to Park, taking a brief moment to look at some fifty-cent books along the way.
The Milton Gates
Tags: Montreal, Streetlife