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Two Independent Bookstores Share Keys to Their Success

Crafting an Inviting Space May Be as Crucial as the Book Selection
Bookstore Un livre à soi located on Laurier Avenue East in Montreal. Olivier Gariépy (CoStar)
Bookstore Un livre à soi located on Laurier Avenue East in Montreal. Olivier Gariépy (CoStar)

Book lovers will understand the appeal of a beautiful, inspiring bookstore; which is why, despite the convenience that Amazon offers, or the one-stop shopping opportunity afforded by big box stores, independent bookstores are thriving.

According to Société de gestion de la BTLF, a professional organization specializing in French-language books in Canada, book sales at independent bookstores in Quebec have been growing steadily since the start of the pandemic. From 2019 to 2020, book sales at independent bookstores were up by 18%, and from 2020 to 2021, they went up 16.3% — a cumulative increase of 30.6%.

Two examples of the independent bookstore trend are Un livre à soi, which is located in Montreal’s Plateau-Mont-Royal neighbourhood and opened in May 2022; and Librairie Saint Henri Books (commonly referred to as LSHB), which opened its doors in 2018 in Montreal’s Saint-Henri neighbourhood.

Both bookstores have since been embraced by their local communities for their specific offerings, expert book recommendations and unique interior designs.

The counter space at Un livre à soi. Olivier Gariépy (CoStar)

Meeting a Need in the Neighbourhood

Prior to opening, both shops identified a need in their neighborhood for a bookstore. “It seemed like there was a real market for a bookstore in Saint-Henri,” said Alex Nierenhausen, general manager at LSHB. “Notre-Dame [Street] was, at the time and still is, growing and developing, and we saw that there was a spot there specifically for an English language bookstore.” LSHB carries both French and English books, but there are more English titles given the community demand.

Part of the book selection at LSHB. (Sabrina Barazin Studio)

In addition to its book selection, LSHB hosts events and seeks to foster connections with the local community, whether by hosting a local author for a book launch, inviting a local sommelier for a wine tasting or creating their own podcast, Weird Era. “It’s intrinsic to the business to make sure that people’s voices within the community are being heard,” Nierenhausen said.

Integrating the community proved to be particularly important, as it really showed up during the worst of the pandemic closings, according to Nierenhausen. “At a certain point during the pandemic, people realized ‘if we keep ordering everything we need off of Amazon, then all of our local businesses will close’, so people really started focusing on shopping at independent [businesses],” he said. “December 2020 was one of our busiest seasons to date because of a huge push to support local businesses.”

A plant welcomes visitors at Un livre à soi. Olivier Gariépy (CoStar)

For Olivia Sofia and Léo Loisel, cofounders of Un livre à soi, it was imperative to open in the Petit Laurier area since they had both lived in the neighborhood for years and knew firsthand that the area lacked an independent bookstore that could also serve as a gathering space.

Opening a Bookstore in 2022

Owning their own bookstore was a long-term dream for Loisel and Sofia. As luck would have it, Loisel found the retail space to house the bookstore when it was literally under wraps, as there was still paper obscuring windows of the shop.

The couch at Un livre à soi. Olivier Gariépy (CoStar)

The used appliances store that occupied the space previously had just closed its doors when Loisel stumbled upon it. He immediately contacted the landlord, who said that he needed to put the space back in order, but that Loisel would be given priority to lease it once that work was complete.

The owner redid the floors and stripped the false ceiling, discovering an ornate vintage iteration underneath, which he then painted gold. The ceiling height is particularly impressive at 4.9 meters (16 feet) which is Sofia’s favourite feature about the space. “I think that it’s very important for the space to not feel claustrophobic,” Sofia said.

The counter and some shelves at Un livre à soi. Olivier Gariépy (CoStar)

When Loisel and Sofia first took possession of the space, it was a large room devoid of furniture, so they started putting up green tape to delineate a variety of different sections. They then leveraged their many contacts in the theatre world to help set up the space.

A friend who is a scenographer helped them make plans, while another friend who is a lighting designer helped them to install the chandelier, which was bought from Facebook Marketplace. Most of the other furniture was gathered from friends, family and the local community. The latter became involved quickly. “We weren’t even open, but people came to offer their help,” Sofia said. “Since the beginning, we’ve had an incredible welcome.”

A table at Un livre à soi. Olivier Gariépy (CoStar)

The bookstore’s sign was handpainted by renowned lettering artist Claude Dolbec, who had created many other signs across town, such as the one at bar-restaurant Majestique, where Sofia used to work. “We gave him free rein; we just told him that we wanted the sign to say ‘Un livre à soi’.” Dolbec created a unique sign in tones of black, gold and beige.

The sign was handpainted by Claude Dolbec. Olivier Gariépy (CoStar)

Loisel and Sofia were able to open the bookstore with their own savings and they signed a five-year lease.

Nearly Five Years in Saint-Henri

Situated on a side street just off busy Notre-Dame Street, which is filled with bars, cafés and restaurants, LSHB has created a book haven in the Sud-Ouest. “We’re just off of Notre-Dame [Street], so we don’t necessarily get the same foot traffic as if we were directly on the street,” Nierenhausen said. “If you know we’re here, you know we’re here. If you don’t, then it’s a little gem that you’ll find eventually.”

Sabrina Barazin, founder of Sabrina Barazin Studio, secured the interior design assignment for LSHB. It was the first contract of its kind for Barazin, who has since gone on to do other projects such as one-of-a-kind beauty salon Beauties Lab .

A fireplace facing covered by a gilded mirror and some plants. (Courtesy of Sabrina Barazin Studio)

Originally, the space “felt like a box”, Barazin said, so she decided to add crown moulding and a herringbone floor. In the windowsill, a mosaic marble in sage green and white was installed, and marble and brass tables were added in the centre as product podiums. Barazin also installed custom bookshelves to wrap the whole space.

At the time, Barazin was binge watching the Netflix series The Crown, and took some inspiration from the show. She conceptualized colour palettes in jewel tones and chose a blue-green high-end paint from British brand Farrow & Ball. She bought old chairs for 10 Canadian dollars (US$7.40) each from an ecocentre and had them refinished and reupholstered in royal tones.

The chairs were refinished and reupholstered. (Courtesy of Sabrina Barazin Studio)

A fireplace facing was bought and covered in black marble, and a gilded antique mirror was put on the mantle. A vintage record player was installed to create the appropriate aural ambiance, while paintings from local artist Dan Climan were added to the space, enhancing the relationship between the bookstore and local artists.

“It’s really about taking a white box and trying to make it as ‘antiquey’ as possible while still being contemporary,” Barazin said. “We tried to inject all of these layers to make it cozy and feel like a place where you want to hang out and read books.”

Part of the decor at LSHB. (Courtesy of Sabrina Barazin Studio)

As the project did not involve a lot of renovations, it took about three months from start to finish. “Sabrina’s design was great from the start,” Nierenhausen added. “We knew that it was going to be something timeless that still worked in a modern capacity.”

Since the bookstore’s opening in 2018, about four more bookshelves were added, doubling the shelf space, and a charcoal-coloured couch and plants were brought in as well. “The space was sparser and more minimalistic in the beginning, which was really beneficial for us in the long run because it gave us so many options to grow within the space,” Nierenhausen said.

The record player at LSHB. (Courtesy of Sabrina Barazin Studio)

Keep it Rolling

Making use of rolling furniture is essential for both bookstores because when there are events such as book readings and launches, tables can be easily moved to create space for folding chairs. “You need to be able to move things around, so when you’re having events, you can move things out of the way,” Nierenhausen said.

Both bookstores have basements in their buildings that provide additional storage. LSHB uses the space to hold overstock, and at Un livre à soi, the basement accommodates a bathroom and offers some storage space. The lower level can’t be used for events since it doesn’t have the mandatory two emergency exits.

The gold ceiling is a striking design element at Librairie Un livre à soi. Olivier Gariépy (CoStar)

Un livre à soi is also fully accessible for people using wheelchairs. “Ever since we opened, we have had people in wheelchairs tell us that it’s great to be able to roll between rows without hitting anyone. It’s very important,” Sofia said.

Books and Biophilia

The abundance of light at Librairie Saint-Henri Bookstore (LSHB) allows for a great number of plants. “I have this belief that plants are happier around books,” Barazin said. Since two of the walls are mostly windows, and a third wall also features a window, the space is very bright. “We kind of knew that it was just going to lend itself to greenery and plants,” Nierenhausen said. “On a summer day, it’s a little tropical oasis. And when you come in January, when there is snow on the ground, it’s warm, it’s bright and it’s very green.”

Plants are thriving at LSHB. (Courtesy of Sabrina Barazin Studio)

Un livre à soi also counts many plants in its space — it was a must-have for Loisel, who couldn’t have plants at his previous job.

Finding Their Niche

Stocking books that their clientele appreciates is essential for smaller bookstores, but so is leading with their own literary interests, as this helps brand the bookstore and draw loyal customers.

At Un livre à soi, Sofia is passionate about feminist essays and books written by women, whereas Loisel specializes in Black and Afro-descendant authors and books about antiracist and decolonial themes. The bookstore also carries a wide selection of art and children’s books and is working on extending their used books section.

At LSHB, the clientele is a mix of different age and social groups, so the book selection reflects that. “Our focus here has always been on modern, contemporary literature and fiction, so we do drive a millennial market and a Gen Z market,” Nierenhausen said, adding that they also stock all the books that are hot on TikTok.

And people keep coming back, according to Nierenhausen. “We like to have conversations with people about books that they’re reading, about the books that they want to read. I think that’s what’s special about a place like this and what brings people back.”