Growing up in Montreal, I didn’t realize what a strange city it is. It doesn’t feel like the rest of Canada—we’re polite-ish—but mostly it’s a city built on excess. During Prohibition, it was a razzmatazz of booze, music, and brothels. Even now, you’ll find there’s still lots of character to the place. You might be having wine and dinner in Parc La Fontaine, while someone distantly plays a ukulele and someone else goes by riding a unicycle.
If you’re looking for our largest library, head to downtown’s spacious Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec (or BanQ). Though that one is impressively modern, my favourite is the Westmount Library. The outside, which borders a park and has an on-site green house, is a red brick and stone building with large windows and turret. Founded in 1897, there are archways with murals painted on top, stained glass windows and other aesthetic touches that show a lot of love was put into the construction of this building.
Excellent used bookstores will help fill your luggage with new-old reads: Argo, The Word, and S.W. Welch Bookseller are my top three. Attached to Concordia University is the Community Solidarity Co-op Bookstore. The name is a mouthful, but it has Montreal’s best collection of sex and gender books, and maintains a solid collection of new and used titles. It’s even a not-for-profit that employs students (including this writer for a year).
Mordecai Richler Reading Room
Concordia University also has the Mordecai Richler room, containing the late author’s typewriter, knickknacks and book collection. Though closed to the general public, the website has contact info for research related inquiries. As a former student, I’ve been inside the room and it really is quite a treasure trove of book geekery.
The Artsy Districts: Le Plateau
Leave downtown for The Plateau district, featured in Richler’s The St. Urbain’s Horseman and Heather O’Neill’s Lullabies for Little Criminals. Walk along St. Laurent Boulevard until Marie-Anne, and then dip into the Parc du Portugal across from Leonard Cohen‘s former walk-up. Cross the street to settle in at the delicious Bagels Etc.—a haunt of Cohen’s when he was still alive and my personal fave breakfast spot in the city. Get the Gershwin.
The Artsy Districts: The Mile end
The Mile End starts somewhere along St. Joseph, so take St.Laurent or any parallel street. This will bring you to Librairie Drawn and Quarterly, the storefront of a respected graphic novel publishing company. If you need a refresher of why D&Q sounds familiar, their titles include Jillian Tamaki’s Boundless, Sonja Ahlers’s The Selves, and Adrian Tomine’s Shortcomings. The store is compact and definitely doesn’t have a cozy reading spot, but browsing their shelves is wonderful. The books, graphic novels, and magazines in stock are some of the most aesthetically beautiful editions I’ve seen. Recently they moved their children’s books to a space across the street: La Petite Drawn and Quarterly.
This list of places is by no means complete, as an Anglophone writing for an English-language site, I am mostly writing about English-language bookstores. Double your fun and do some research into the French side of things, as Montreal has an almost endless stream of strange, interesting locations to check out (pun intended). If you’re visiting Montreal in the spring, the Blue Metropolis Literary Festival will be full of authors talks and workshops for added book-fun.