A Landmark Leaves the Main

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Browing $1 books during the Main Madness street fair

Yesterday, a St. Laurent Blvd. institution began a new life on St. Viateur St. The bookstore S.W. Welch, which for 15 years has been a treasure trove of used English books on the Main, has moved to Mile End, pushed north, its owner says, by incessant construction and rising rents.

Work crews began digging up St. Laurent last year for an ambitious renovation project. The century-old water pipes underneath the street are now being replaced and, later this year, sidewalks will be widened, allowing for more trees, bicycle parking and street furniture. In the meantime, however, St. Laurent is a hassle to navigate, pushing customers away.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, S.W. Welch’s landlord announced earlier this year that he would raise the store’s rent from $2,500 to $3,000 per month. “We decided it wasn’t worth the hassle,” said Stephen Welch, the store’s owner. He closed shop earlier this month.

Last weekend, though, Welch and his family opened their old store for one last hurrah: three days of $1 books. As usual, Welch was found sitting behind the counter in the front corner of the store on Friday, greeting customers. He was accompanied by his son Patrick, 17, and their cat, Khan.

More than two dozen people were packed into the store, browsing big rows of books. A thin guy with a green tuque, four-day stubble and plastic-framed glasses wandered up to the cash with 32 books.

“Patrick! Viens ici!” shouted Welch across the store. “Could you make a box please? This gentleman wants a box.”

“Yes, my master,” grumbled Patrick, arriving with some cardboard and packing tape.

Welch first opened his bookstore in Snowdon 22 years ago, after working as a photographer in the Royal Victoria Hospital, copying slides and taking before-and-after pictures of cosmetic surgery. “I didn’t like it. I was a complainer,” he said. That was when an old art school friend, who now runs a bookstore in Halifax, suggested that he try his hand at the book trade.

So he did, first selling books at Finnegan’s Flea Market in Hudson and then at his own store, which moved from Snowdon to Sherbrooke St. in N.D.G. in the late 1980s.

By the early 1990s, however, business in the west end was bad. That was when Welch had a revelation. “I used to live up on St. Urbain near Duluth, in a house that’s burned down now,” he said. “One night I was up late and I turned the corner in my car, my old Valiant, and came down St. Laurent. It was packed with people. Even though I just lived over on St. Urbain my impression of St. Laurent was of old babushka stores and that kind of thing. I suddenly realized something was happening here.”

The past 15 years on the Main have been nothing if not memorable. Welch attracted a crowd of neighbourhood regulars who made his bookstore their second home. “It can be a little crazy at night,” he said. “Drunks buying books. When we sweep up the floor there are a lot of toothpicks that have originated across the street at Schwartz’s. In the old days you’d have Ryan Larkin on the couch, quietly drinking, or his buddy Stanley Lewis, the sculptor. Both gone.”

Larkin, the former NFB animator who spent his days panhandling on the Main, died of cancer last month. He was always in the store. He used to sit on the sofa, drinking and enjoying the presence of Welch’s cats: first Rosie, who died last year, and then Khan.

At the start of the sale last weekend, Khan sat regally in a worn wooden chair, feigning disinterest in the hubbub around her. “Khan’s her name, but we call her Dibby,” Welch explained.

“He also calls me Dibby,” Patrick added.

“When they’re cute I call them Dibby.”

“She used to be a big scaredy-cat. When we first brought her to the store she would go and hide behind the shelves. She’s not going to be happy at the new store!”

Last year, Khan was sitting on the stoop outside the bookstore when she was stolen by a passerby. Welch and his family put up posters, but it was Larkin who eventually, incidentally, led to the cat being found. “What happened was that a columnist from La Presse was interviewing Ryan on the 100th anniversary of St. Laurent, and all Ryan could complain about was the cat being gone. The title of the article ended up being ‘Le chemin de chats perdus.’ ”

After La Presse’s article was published, Welch got a call from someone who told him that Khan was living in an apartment on Papineau St. “She was not happy!”

Despite all of these memories, the decision to move to Mile End seems wise. Over the past several years, many of the Plateau residents who visit Welch’s store have moved north. “The funny thing is, when I started to tell the regulars I was moving to St. Viateur, they said, ‘Oh, I live there!’ I think I’m basically following the population. I kept realizing that people were there, not here,” Welch said. “It’s going to be nice being part of a community up there. ‘Welcome to the neighbourhood!’ I get a lot of that. Nobody ever said that when I opened up here.”

As that Friday afternoon slid into evening, people kept piling into the store to wish him well and search for cheap books. Thirty, then 40 people stood around, scouring the shelves. Their reactions to Welch’s departure from the Main seemed mixed. “I wouldn’t consider myself a regular, but I come here a few times a month,” said Randal Pierce, who was browsing through a selection of old books with a friend. “I like to come read children’s books, to get away from all of my schoolwork. They’ve got a really chill couch here.” Pierce said he would visit the new store on St. Viateur, though perhaps not as often – Mile End is less convenient for him than the Main.

Myriam Coulombe, who darted excitedly from one section of the store to the next scooping up $1 books, said it was her first time at Welch’s. “My husband is in line across the street at Schwartz’s, but I love old books. I’ll definitely visit the new store.”

Welch wondered what it would be like on St. Viateur, in a slightly smaller space on a friendlier, but tamer, street. He said a friend had volunteered to design and paint the new store’s interior. A recent peek confirmed that it is indeed cozier and more charming than Welch’s old store on St. Laurent.

“It’s gonna look nice,” said Welch. “But it will only look really nice when the books are in there.”

S.W. Welch reopened yesterday at 225 St. Viateur St. W., between Jeanne Mance and Esplanade Sts. The old location, at 3878 St. Laurent Blvd., will be open today one last time to give away books not sold last weekend, from noon until whenever the books run out.

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Stephen Welch and his cat Khan. Photo by Gordon Beck, The Gazette

This article was first published in the Montreal Gazette on Sunday, March 18.

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Sunday March 18 2007at 02:03 pm , filed under Canada and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

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