Bazaar Living in Montreal’s Laneways

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By midweek, the first signs appear, advertising garage sales, yard sales, sidewalk sales, moving sales. They chart the vast outdoor flea market that is Montreal on so many sunny weekends.

Most of these sales are infrequent, but, in some cases, they have evolved into regular, quasi-permanent bazaars, run by people who have taken it upon themselves to provide the city with a source of affordable recycled goods. In this era of green politics and community involvement, they are examples of the most local, sustainable forms of commerce.

On a recent Sunday in Mile End, posters on St. Viateur St. advertised half a dozen of them. Nearby, on Waverly St., a Portuguese couple sat on their porch, overlooking a front garden filled with clothes, books, furniture and knick-knacks.

“It’s all of the things we’ve collected over the years. Look at how full the table is,” said one of the pair. “There’s lots of places around here that do this,” so people stroll around the neighbourhood and browse, he said.

A couple of blocks away, at the corner of St. Viateur and Esplanade, a grey-haired woman was selling things on the sidewalk next to the Social Club cafe terrasse.

“We’re having a garage sale to share with others what we have. I’m keeping nothing but my toothbrush and my underwear!”

Most of the people who organize these kinds of sales do so just once or twice a year, when they move or get fed up with all the junk that has been accumulating in closets. A handful, however, have devoted a large part of their lives to maintaining regular sidewalk or alley sales.

Maria Vlakou, who came to Montreal from Greece in 1956, has maintained a bazaar at the corner of Park Ave. and Villeneuve St. for the past 10 years, selling things that have been discarded in the alley or donated by neighbours.

“I don’t make (much) money,” she said, taking a break from hawking her wares to the stream of people passing by on their way to the tam-tams. “I make $200 in a year. I collect these things to help people, to make a bit of a living and that’s it. Some people don’t have good clothes so I give it to them. Others I give to Sun Youth. If I don’t help people, I don’t feel good.”

Vlakou’s sale takes place “three or four” weekends each summer. Up in the alley behind the St. Viateur Bagel Shop, however, Michel (who asked that his last name not be published) has sold a vast variety of goods on almost every summer Sunday for 17 years. Since 1990, Michel has rented a series of garages in which he stores bicycles, furniture, books, lamps, suitcases and more. Vinyl Beatles and Henry Belafonte records sit next to a chest of drawers. Neighbourhood people – families, hipsters, Hasidic Jews, old men in fedoras – wander by, chatting with Michel and looking for deals.

Everything Michel sells has been abandoned in the streets and laneways.

“Often I have to clean and repair what I find. It’s very time-consuming,” he said. “But it’s a passion. I find most of my Christmas and birthday gifts, all my clothing, some of my food. Once I found 100 pounds of honey that lasted me two years.”

Running the alley bazaar consumes 60 hours a week. “It’s my day job and my night job. Someone told me it’s beautiful work, but it’s underpaid considering all the greenhouse gases I save from new objects being built,” Michel said.

Some of the same ideas inform The 7th Sandglass, a new bookstore on Park Ave. Its owner, Gilles Lacroix, started selling books in front of his ground floor apartment a little over a year ago. Gradually, the sidewalk sale grew inward and engulfed his living space.

Today, he piles books outside on old shelves and IKEA tables, as well as a couple of old Gazette newspaper racks. Inside, he has crafted bookshelves from futon frames he found in the back alley. Lacroix specializes in English and French literature, with a growing collection of books in other languages, including Spanish, German and Chinese.

“Since we are in Mile End, there are two things I want to emphasize: having cheap books and having them in different languages. I want to give people access to something without technology or high prices. See, I have a box of free books,” he said, pointing outside. “They’re free! Would you see that at Renaud-Bray?”

Lacroix’s bookstore may yet run afoul of city inspectors, though: He doesn’t have a permit to run a business out of his apartment. Michel, meanwhile, is tight-lipped when asked whether he has ever run into trouble with the law. “I won’t get into that,” he said firmly.

According to Patricia Lowe, a spokesperson for the city of Montreal, any sort of regular commercial activity must have a licence. But, she added, most boroughs give free rein to occasional yard, sidewalk and alley sales, so long as they don’t obstruct a public right-of-way.

Still, Lacroix and Michel say that selling in the laneway, on the sidewalk and in an apartment are the only ways they can afford to do business. “I only make between $400 and $500 a month. If I open a store, I’m bankrupt within two months,” Lacroix said.

Michel, for his part, exclaimed, “It’s out of reach. Look at how many stores open and close within a year (because they lose money). It’s scandalous!”

This article was originally published in the Montreal Gazette.

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Thursday May 24 2007at 11:05 am , filed under Canada, Public Space, Society and Culture and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

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