Every city has its neighborhoods, every neighborhood has its sites to see, every site has its people to meet and every person you meet has a story to tell.
I’m back in Montreal from my exchange in Manchester. And being back has brought on a newfound appreciation for the neighborhoods I call home. The Summer walk down Notre-Dame W in St-Henri is charming. The heat of the sun radiates through the air – so hot that the air itself is visible, coating every building with a mirage-like veil. I’m visiting a local bookstore today: St-Henri Books. It’s tucked away right off of Notre Dame on Rue Thérien, stowed in the pocket of a street that’s always buzzing with activity…St-Henri Books or as people in the neighborhood simply call it: “the bookstore”.
There’s a quote I love from Neil Gaiman’s American Gods that goes like this: “What I say is, a town isn’t a town without a bookstore. It may call itself a town, but unless it’s got a bookstore, it knows it’s not foolin’ a soul.”
Somehow, independent bookstores have a quietly powerful presence in every neighborhood. Maybe it’s because they are a reflection of our longings. At least, that’s the sense I got when I walked into St-Henri Books.
The store space is curated for us. Windows near the entranceway give natural lighting to the handpicked books that line the shelves. Everything has its place here. It almost feels like a community art space. Books are hand picked for readers as one would imagine curators select pieces for gallery-goers. Except these are artworks that we can reach out and touch. The record player, the children's books corner, the classics and the recent releases...all layered in French and English - jive together in harmony.
When I spoke with Alex, one of the store’s managers, his enthusiasm for the space and his job was absolutely contagious. One would think that it’s rare to see an independent bookstore open nowadays. In fact, statistics show that Canadian book consumption has been steadily declining over the last five years, with a slight spike in 2014. However, arriving at the St-Henri Books made me realize that it is needed now more than ever. Books are gateways to new understandings of the world. Even Alex describes experiencing a huge learning curve working at the bookstore. When selecting books to purchase for the store, it isn’t uncommon to wonder whether “they’ll move”. In other words, everyone in the neighborhood has different tastes in what they prefer - some don’t even know what they want. It’s hard to predict which books will find a home. Except they do move. Seemingly without rhyme or reason, people look for something new – their next favorite read recommended to them by the bookstore staff and something new in the bookstore space itself. Nestled in the neighborhood – the bookstore satisfies that desire for the new but reflects the familiar as well. In each book that lines the shelves, we find the stories that speak to us as individuals. Under one roof, our literary tastes coincide. And in the bookstore as a whole, we find a story about our neighborhood and us.