The white walls of a non-descript clothing store in Montreal’s Saint-Henri neighbourhood are beginning to look bare as owners pack it in after 78 years in the area.
Libéral, a mainstay on busy Notre-Dame Street, is shuttering at the end of December despite best efforts by management to keep it open. Handwritten messages on yellow bristol boards indicate it is the final sale for the store.
“I just can’t do it any more,” said owner Robert Aboud.
His family’s business took a nosedive after construction in the area ripped up the main drag for two summers and eliminated parking spots outside the store.
More spots disappeared after the sidewalk was widened and summer terrasses for local restaurants were added.
Libéral’s clientele mostly travels by car and there has been a gradual decline since construction, according to Aboud. Most of his clients are from the neighbourhood, but as housing prices skyrocketed in recent years, he said they moved away to the outskirts and they would come by car.
“Customers found other places to shop and places they can park,” he said. “So, it’s been rough.”
Barbara Lynch, who has been working at the store for 20 years, used to shop there with her parents when she was a kid. Libéral long stood as an institution as part of working-class Saint-Henri.
“It’s like my second home,” she said. “I’m going to miss it.”
Aside from construction woes, Aboud simply can’t keep up with the increase in taxes and the property value of his building was raised by $100,000. In order to offset the dwindling sales, he dug deep in his own pockets to continue, dishing out nearly $30,000 in two years — but it wasn’t enough.
Aboud has also struggled with online competition as a traditional retail store. As business grew tough, his staff was cut so that the store could survive but Aboud came to realize it still wasn’t profitable.
“I just could never get back to what it was,” he said.
The closure comes as Saint-Henri is changing, too. As more condominiums are built and the area attracts new buyers from outside the neighbourhood, Lynch said devoted clients are sad to see the store go.
“The younger generation doesn’t know this store better than the older generation,” she said.
Different hurdles for local business owners
Charles de Brabant, the executive director of Bensadoun School of Retail Managment at McGill University, explained that traditional retail stores in Montreal are facing several challenges.
Large-scale and lengthy construction projects are never great for any city, according to de Brabant.
However, retail businesses are also going through what he described as a transformative moment.
“If you look at the whole construction thing in Montreal, it’s one aspect that negatively impacts retail,” he said.
“If you’re an average retailer, if you’re not upping your game, construction or no construction, there is a chance you may not be around in a few years.”
The growing number of empty storefronts on commercial arteries is something that the city hopes to address during public consultations in 2020.
Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante announced the move in August, saying business owners are facing high rents and the rising popularity of online stores. Her administration estimates that 15 per cent of storefronts on the city’s main streets are empty.
Aboud, for his part, said he hopes Libéral will make it to Christmas.
— With files from Global News’ Phil Carpenter