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How Montreal’s Librairie Drawn & Quarterly earned its reputation as a beloved institution

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FeatureSeptember_LibraireD+QLibrairie Drawn & Quarterly hasn’t been around quite as long as Montreal’s famed Schwartz’s deli – 10 years to Schwartz’s 89 – but the bookstore has nonetheless earned its spot as a city institution. The offshoot of comics publisher Drawn & Quarterly, located on rue Bernard, in the heart of the Mile End neighbourhood, has an overall feeling of timelessness, with exposed-brick walls and wooden slatted ceilings. “I thought it had always been there,” says Luc Bossé, editor of Pow Pow Press, a local bilingual comics publisher and a regular D&Q visitor.

The 800-square-foot space Drawn & Quarterly took over a decade ago previously housed a Hasidic women’s clothing store, and needed renovation. The wood slats, now painted gold, were discovered after removing three layers of drop ceiling. A barbershop fixture on the west wall houses the fiction section. Future plans include replacing eight rectangular tables in the centre of the store with some on wheels – particularly helpful in making room for the store’s many events.

Librairie Drawn & Quarterly opened in 2007, nearly 20 years after the press was founded in the same Montreal neighbourhood. Staff had noticed that English stores in the city carried mostly English comics, and French stores carried mostly French books. “At each store, there was a little lonely shelf that would be like, ‘Local Publishers,’” says Peggy Burns, D&Q’s publisher. D&Q’s goal was to open a store where readers could find not only their books, but also titles from other popular independent presses, like McSweeney’s, that were hard to find in the city. The timing was unfortunate – right before a recession, and just as Amazon’s influence was rising – but the staff felt confident. “It was a crazy time to open up a bookstore,” Burns says, “but we always just felt that there were books here that we wanted to read and other people wanted to read.”

Librairie Drawn & Quarterly owes its success to an interconnected web of mutual support. It is a beacon of its neighbourhood, a place beloved by locals and tourists alike. One of its bestsellers, in fact, is Pow Pow’s Mile End. Bossé estimates a copy of either the English or French edition sells each day. “There’s a buzz around the neighbourhood,” he says, “and for people visiting Montreal it acts as a souvenir.”

Drawn & Quarterly can’t afford to carry titles that don’t sell, Burns says, so it’s essential for staff to know the stock and know their customers. While D&Q’s store manager handles the bulk of the buying, each part-time and full-time employee is assigned a section for which they can also order books. “A lot of the special books come from the employees championing a certain title,” Burns says. This allows the store’s personality to ebb and flow with the personalities of the current staff.

Librairie Drawn & Quarterly is also a busy event space: Burns estimates the store has held more than 800 since it opened. For Toronto-based publisher BookThug, D&Q’s openness to hosting their authors has been a blessing. “Being here in Toronto and having that established relationship means we can tour our authors to Montreal even though we can’t be in attendance,” says co-publisher Hazel Millar. “They take photos, so I see their wonderful displays. I feel like I’m really there in spirit.”

Burns says that hosting events on- and offsite offers a window into how well D&Q is connecting with its neighbourhood and its city. She recalls hosting Scholastic author Raina Telgemeier at the Rialto theatre event space last fall, and watching crowds of eight-year-old girls stream in with books clutched to their chests. “That’s what we love the most,” Burns says. “Every single person in the neighbourhood has a relationship to the bookstore.”

To celebrate the store’s 10-year anniversary, Burns says they considered throwing a weekend-long event at the Rialto, bringing lots of authors in from out of town. “But at the end of the day we’re still an independent bookstore and independent publisher with limited staff and limited resources,” she says, “So the best thing we thought we could do to celebrate the 10th anniversary was just to continue on.”