The Argo Bookshop
Argo Bookshop (1915 Ste-Catherine St. O.) is Montreal’s oldest English-language bookstore. Opened by John George in 1966, it now belongs to Meaghan Acosta and JP Karwacki. Despite its 200 square feet, the store stocks no fewer than 6,000 titles. The store is also host to both the Argo Open Mic and its Featured Reading Series, providing a meeting space and venue for writers and readers in the Shaughnessy Village area. This interview took place over email.
Jason Freure: The Argo’s stretch of Ste-Catherine, sort of from St-Mathieu to Atwater, has seen a lot of shifts in the past few decades. Until 1996, the Canadiens played at the Forum only a few blocks away. The Seville Theatre was closed and abandoned in 1985, and now they’ve put up condos after thirty years of vacancy. The Cabot Square reconstruction is often blamed for the increased presence of homelessness on the stretch, too. How do you think The Argo managed to fare through the neighbourhood’s decline? Could it have been a good thing for the store?
JP Karwacki: The Argo Bookshop has managed to weather these changes through a grounded community of customers, including (but not limited to) Anglophone devotees, tourists, and students. “Our” neighbourhood isn’t necessarily composed of buildings and the businesses contained therein, but of the people I mentioned. I believe this applies to the shop’s past generations of ownership as well. However, we still run the same risks that have generally affected bookstores in the past. Initially, the gentrification of the neighbourhood might be good for the store. The area is increasingly integrated into the city’s well-known shopping district (which begins about 5 blocks away), full of affluent residents to boot, but rent and tax increases could be a problem. And there is whether or not we will ultimately fit in with the milieu of businesses that will move in. We’re not in or out of the woods yet, we’ve just set up a sturdy camp.
Jason Freure: Ste-Catherine West has seen a lot of new investment in the last few years. The city seems more than happy to accommodate any money going into the strip, without much consideration for residents or merchants. Even though Argo seems to be doing better than it has in years, do you worry that the neighbourhood might outpace you?
JP Karwacki: As I mentioned before, whether or not we will ‘fit in’ with the changing face of the neighbourhood is a concern, but that is largely due to how much it will affect the cost of simply existing here. Many long-standing bookstores have been shut down in the past due to problems such as this, like Montreal’s branch of Nicholas Hoare and Toronto’s The Book Mark. So, this constitutes our greatest concern. As for whether or not we should be concerned about being surrounded by non-book businesses, it’s still too early in the game to say whether that is a fad or a trend in cultural purchasing tastes.
Jason Freure: I also wanted to ask you a couple questions about the technicalities of bookselling. I’ve read that publishers see as much as 40-60 percent of their books returned to them. Can you explain the practice of returning books to publishers?
JP Karwacki: Generally speaking, it’s the return of stock that has not sold after a period of time to a distributor in exchange for credit with that distributor. This maintains a constant overturn and renewal of titles in stores.
I wonder about that return rate you mentioned. Vanderbilt’s Making of the Bestseller, right? While every indie bookshop has got its own way of going about their stock, it’s been said that one of the things that help indies stay afloat, alongside large retailers, is that indies will retain more of their older stock. It gives readers a greater chance to see what was printed in the last couple of years as opposed to the last couple of months. From what I’ve read, large outlets have a much higher overturn of books, where indies are more prone to hold on to what they’d ordered and definitely hold on to what sold. That said, I wonder what the return rate would look like if only micro-to-small indies were taken into consideration.
Jason Freure: Do institutional purchases make a significant impact on your business?
The Argo Bookshop and Finishing School
JP Karwacki: It has a huge impact on the shop. Institutional purchases regularly overshadow walk-in sales. The Argo is in Quebec, a province that has a registration system of institutional support in place for bookstores. If a bookshop meets the governmental requirements for accreditation, it can receive regular, large orders of books to supply libraries, schools, etc.
Jason Freure: Finally, when Peter Sergakis expanded his mega-bar, Sports Station, he pushed out a few independent businesses, including Westcott Books. People in the neighbourhood weren’t happy about it, but when it comes time to actually spend hard cash, a lot of folks turn around and go elsewhere. They like to see the little guy on Main Street because they’re quaint or weird, but they never buy anything there. This question comes out of a conversation I had with someone who lives in the Argo’s neighbourhood.
JP Karwacki: To each their own. I’ll wonder from time to time why passersby will stop outside the door, within earshot of me, and exclaim, “Oh wow! I never knew there was a bookstore here!” without coming in. Would it really hurt to come in and browse? There are a lot of speculative answers to this question. I like to entertain the idea that while people “like to see the little guy on Main Street,” they imagine small bookstores are run by the arrogant academics you see on screen, retailers who would scoff at your honest requests and tell you to “read a real book.” While this may not actually happen, it’s an infectious presumption. Perhaps this is one of the big reasons why the big-box stores took off so well. It’s not just the widespread discounts that attract people, it’s also that stores like Chapters allow a comfortable conformity. It includes the same lighting, music, style of display, and service you’d expect at any other corporate store.
I’ll take this opportunity to say the following: If you see a small, independent bookstore, go in for 15 minutes. It will more often than not be a quiet place with personalized service and a selection that has been painstakingly hand-picked. Not sure what you’re looking for? Recommendations abound that are driven more by consideration than capitalism, trust me. Worried that your request will be snubbed by the cashier as philistine drivel? Nonsense, they’re happy that you came by and will likely offer to order it for you. Besides, they will need your business a lot more than Jeff Bezos or Heather Reisman. Some bemoan the loss of independents; they say it’s a shame, but what do they do about it?
JP Karwacki has co-owned the Argo since 2011. He is a graduate of Concordia University and writes for the Food and Books sections of Cult Montreal. You can contact him by email, Facebook and/or Twitter.