At a time when many independent retailers are struggling to stay afloat, the Argo Bookshop in Montreal’s Shaughnessy Village, now the oldest independent English-language bookshop in the city, seems to be defying the odds.
After outgrowing the storefront it had for more than 50 years, it has moved to a new spot that is double the size, just half a block away on St. Catherine St. West.
A fixture in the neighbourhood since 1966, the Argo has managed to survive e-books, and online retail giants, something its co-owner Adele Prevost credits to the store’s long-time customers.
“People like being able to talk to us and ask us questions,” said Prevost. “People like being able to discover a book they didn’t know they would love.”
The Argo’s original owner, John George, started the bookshop after travelling the world. When he died in 2006, the tiny store switched hands a few times, until Prevost’s friend Moti Lieberman decided to buy it in 2017.
“The instant he told me about it I got so excited, I said you have to let me in on this we have to do this together,” she said.
It was a dream business for the pair, and they were convinced it would work.
“We did a bunch of research that showed that independent bookstores, even five years ago when we were looking into this, are doing very well, and it’s actually a growing market,” said Prevost.
When the pandemic hit, they felt the panic that many small business owners were feeling.
“Small independent businesses were in a lot of danger, especially bookstores. There was no browsin. There was no anything,” said Prevost.
But their fears were short lived. The pair pivoted to offering online delivery to most Montreal neighbourhoods, and began organizing free online events, such as author readings and book clubs.
Prevost says the community rallied, and book sales took-off.
“We weren’t able to keep up in the space we had,” she said. “There were books piling up to the ceiling. Just the amount of books coming in and out of the store we realized we had to get a bigger space.”
The new shop is carefully curated and includes an expanded their children’s section, complete with a reading area.
The shop boasts a wide assortment of science fiction novels, BIPOC literature, a section dedicated to Japanese authors and writing about Japan, and niche genres not easily found in other shops.
Prevost loves recommending books to customers, and says both she and Lieberman regularly recommend The Last Samurai by Helen Dewitt (not to be confused with the movie featuring Tom Cruise) because it’s one of their favourite novels of all time.
“If I’m not mistaken of all the copies of that book sold in Canada, year on year, we sell about half of them!” Prevost laughs.
She says she hopes the store will stay in its new location, and remain on St. Catherine Street, for many more years to come.
“It’s such a community hub and a thing that I grew up with and it was a dream come true to think that I could be at the helm of it someday.”