The French language may dominate in Montreal, but there’s glorious browsing to be had at English bookstores Drawn & Quarterly, S.W. Welch and Argo Bookshop
Montreal, lovely though it is, can feel a bit lonely to the anglophone visitor. Even if you understand French, you probably don’t understand Quebecois French, which is just about impenetrable to the outsider. Though I myself took French in university and am supposedly bilingual – enough to translate Balzac, at one point – I can’t understand a word of it. Its definitely-not-Parisian vowels conceal an already opaque blend of slang that you generally don’t find in any textbook.
So, you find yourself strolling by European-style cafés, watching fashionable people banter incomprehensibly without you. In neighbourhoods where anglophones are scarce, your attempts to order lunch in English are met with blank stares, or, worse, snide side-eye. It can be hard to find a place to hang out.
The best remedy I’ve found for this uniquely Montréalaise brand of loneliness is English-language bookstores. Although you might think that Montreal’s best bookstores would all be francophone, the exact opposite is true. Actually, it makes some kind of sense – Montreal is a university town and a haven for artists looking for cheap rent, so many of the city’s bookworms are imported English speakers. And the booksellers that serve them carry an intriguing selection that belies their demographic’s taste for the esoteric.
Drawn & Quarterly
Most of all, this is true of Librarie Drawn & Quarterly (211 Rue Bernard Ouest). This charming shop is the headquarters of Drawn & Quarterly, a publishing company that promulgates non-traditional comic books. Instead of superheroes, in their volumes, you’ll find neurotic bachelors contemplating their mortality, or amiable Finnish blobs heading on maritime voyages. Typically, instead of being action-packed, their work is touching and thought-provoking.
Drawn + Quarterly
That isn’t all the store carries though. It offers a well-curated blend of art books, experimental novels, and quirky cookbooks. You won’t find Eat, Pray, Love here, or the latest issue of Chatelaine. Instead, you’ll find authors you’ve never heard of to fall in love with. Typically, the staffers are totally enamoured of the books they preside over. So a request for a recommendation won’t be greeted by a monosyllabic compliment to get you to buy whatever’s closest to the counter. You might instead get a series of impassioned monologues about stuff they’ve actually read.
And the location is great – it’s nestled in the Mile End neighbourhood, which is where all the beautiful people go. Accordingly, it’s where you go if you want fancy juices, or good biscotti, or you just want some to do some watching of those beautiful people.
S.W. Welch Bookseller
Mile End is also where you’ll find my other favourite bookstore, S.W. Welch Bookseller (225 Rue Saint Viateur Ouest).
S.W. Welch is a used bookstore with an enchanting inventory. Sure, you’ll find the usual used bookstore castoffs – books like the Odyssey that are typically read once in college, or like Ulysses, which are bought by many and read by almost no one.
But you’ll also find ancient treasures you didn’t know you wanted. My finds there have included a beautiful illustrated guide to marine life, some excellent out-of-print Canadian poetry, and a great stack of old detective novels that kept me company during one of Montreal’s terribly cold Januaries.
This is what you miss if you shop Amazon. The convenience of buying books online is unbeatable, as is the selection. But the fact that there are millions of potentially readable books doesn’t mean much unless you have a meaningful recommendation, or just the impulse to read something in particular. Whereas, if you’re anything like me, being in a real live bookstore – actually taking in the scent of pulp, and running your fingers over the pages – gets you excited about a specific book in a way that looking at a JPEG can’t. And, though online shopping offers you algorithmic suggestions, I find them frequently wrong.
Plus, if you stop by S W Welch, you’re only a block away from Montreal’s best bagels, at St-Viateur Bagel (263 Rue Saint Viateur O). What else could you want? Well, maybe a shiny new page-turner, instead of a pre-loved old one, or an unusual comic book.
Argo Bookshop (1915 Sainte-Catherine Street West) is perhaps even more charming than the stores I’ve already mentioned, simply by virtue of the fact that it’s a closet. Argo is a tiny, tiny space, impossibly dense with new English-language titles.
It’s a great place to go if you’re new to Montreal and want to make a friend, because you’re involuntarily drawn into conversation with whoever’s in the shop, just due to mere proximity. Also, it holds frequent readings, if you’re the type of person who likes that sort of thing. I’m usually not, but Argo’s readings are better than most, which, like the store’s friendliness, is due to its compact size. Readings at Argo feel like campfire storytelling, rather than aloof lecturing.
The shop is right next to the base of Montreal’s centrepiece, the small mountain after which the city is named. So, you can take your new purchase for a walk, and read from a high vantage point, looking up occasionally to watch the sun set over the city.
If, by some stroke of bad luck, you don’t end up liking whatever novel you’ve purchased, at least the vista will make you feel like you’re living inside an excellent piece of literature.
Courtesy StÃ©phan Poulin / Montreal Tourism
The view from Mount Royal