A growing number of Montrealers are expressing outrage about the fate of a small independent book store in the Mile End.
S.W. Welch Books has been operating for nearly 40 years. But because its landlord is imposing a huge rent increase, the owner says the store will likely be forced to close.
Owner Stephen Welch says he has been buying and selling books for 37 years.
“My wife is my partner, there are people who occasionally help out, but yes, it’s just me,” said Welch.
His store started out in the west end, moved to the main for about 15 years, and has now been on Saint Viateur in the Mile End for about 15 years. The Mile End is a world-renowned hub of Montreal culture.
Renowned Montreal author Heather O’Neill, a longtime Mile End resident, said she has been visiting the store at its various locations for decades.
“It’s wonderful to have a second hand bookstore in place here, that people can go to and browse and just be part of the community,” she said at S.W. Welch.
Now, it seems S.W. Welch is nearing the end of its story.
The owner says his landlord, real estate developer Shiller Lavy, is demanding a 150 per cent rent increase. He says they imposed a 70 per cent increase just last year.
“It’s going to put me out of business,” he said, explaining that the increase would mean at least an extra $2,000 per month.
Welch says he tried to plead his case in a negotiation session this past Monday, but Shiller Lavy is more interested in increasing their profits than preserving his store.
“My store might not make as much money for them as they would like it to be, but it’s part of the neighborhood and it’s part of the ambiance that draws people to the neighborhood,” he said.
O’Neill said book stores are a sign of a healthy neighbourhood.
“To take that away, you’re taking actually a place where art is happening. Even though it’s happening between covers, people feel it when they walk by,” O’Neill said.
Danny Lavy, co-owner of Shiller Lavy, disputed some of Welch’s claims. In an interview with Global News, he claimed Welch’s rent was going to be increased to $3,500 from $2,500.
“You don’t think I want to keep him?” Lavy said. “These people believe we’re out to get them. We’re not out to get them.”
This is not the first time one of their tenants has been pushed out by a rent increase. The patisserie just next door to S.W. Welch was put out of business in 2019 and remains empty. Beloved café Le Cagibi was also forced out of its space by a steep rent increase after coming under Shiller Lavy ownership.
“If you remove everything that makes the neighborhood great, where will you make your profit after that if it’s just become a Disney Mile End?” wonders Marie Plourde, the borough councillor representing the Mile End.
O’Neill’s 26-year-old daughter Arizona works at Drawn and Quarterly, another independent book store in the area. She called Welch’s situation “awful.”
“It definitely puts into perspective how easy a rent increase can put a store like this out of business, an independently-owned store. The biggest fear is really what is going to replace it,” she said, concerned that the street’s unique identity might be replaced by chain stores or restaurants.
Lavy said the reason rent increases need to be demanded is due to the high taxes commercial property owners need to pay.
“The only person who should be called about these increases is Mayor Valerie Plante,” he said. Lavy added that the reason many Shiller Lavy properties remain empty is that the company can’t pay the taxes on them.
Plourde said the city is trying to get Quebec to address excessive commercial rent increases in Montreal, and that recommendations were recently made to the province.
Welch accused the city of not doing enough to help merchants like him, saying that even if storefronts are empty, the city still takes in tax revenue.
“The city doesn’t care that much because they’re still getting their city taxes per building, whether it’s empty or whether it isn’t. There’s no impetus to do anything,” he said.
“The problem is that all the commercial leases, there is no regulations, no rules. The owners, they can double, triple the rent. They can do whatever they want,” said Ruba Ghazal, the Quebec Solidaire MNA who represents the Mile End. She said her party has pressured the government to keep track of commercial rent increases.
Chantal Rouleau, the minister responsible for Montreal did not answer a request for comment on Friday.
Welch said he would consider moving nearby if he can find an affordable location, but called that possibility unlikely.
“I’m too old and decrepit to to start again and moving anywhere far is starting again,” he said.
Citizens tired of seeing some of their favorite businesses close down say they’re launching a movement to fight back against rent hikes and real estate speculation.
One activist who preferred to remain anonymous told Global News a group is working on a “set of demands and actions to go on indefinitely until definitive changes have been made to put an end to these practices and protect our community.”
There is a protest planned for March 1.