Still a rare commodity in Quebec, literary cafés want to offer places of meeting, comfort and tasting for reading lovers. While the economic context has forced some of them to close in the last year, others have not said their last word.
The Les Malins café-boutique is designed to encourage reading, especially among children. It starts with the displays of books to buy or borrow, all from the publishing house Les Malins, specialist in children’s literature and owner of the place. “Reading is not boring” declares the decoration of the place in white on black, which also includes a gas fireplace, a slide and warm cushioned spaces where you can sit comfortably while enjoying a hot drink or a sandwich.
“We are dreamers. We wanted that, when a young person thinks of Les Malins, they think not only of books, but of an experience,” indicates Marc-André Audet, owner of Éditions les Malins.
The boutique café is enjoying great popularity. On a post-snowstorm Wednesday, almost every table is occupied. Managing a restaurant, however, completely exhausted Mr. Audet. Succeeding in the face of rising costs that are plaguing the restaurant industry would require constant attention that the literature enthusiast does not have.
The adventure will have lasted approximately two years and will end on February 8. Several other literary cafés have recently turned the page. Last July, the Au Vieux Bouc bookstore, in Rosemont, where there was a café, ended its activities after 14 years. The Librairie de Verdun closed its Café de la Troisième a little over a year ago.
The Zorba café-bookstore, opened in the summer of 2022 on rue Saint-Hubert, did not survive much more than a year. The owner, Abdelghani Messaoudi, a recent immigrant from Morocco, got involved in this project because of his passion for books. Customers could read used books on site, borrow them or buy them at a low price. Meetings with authors were also organized.
“This concept doesn’t exist much in Montreal and people liked it,” underlines Mr. Messaoudi. Unfortunately, book sales were not there and inventory management was complex.
“Far from the city center, it is not profitable to run a café. There is too little consumption compared to the price of the rent,” he adds.
A handful of booksellers and publishers nevertheless believe they have found a winning formula. Québec America editions went through an ordeal similar to that of Les Malins with their literary café Chez l’Éditeur, opened in 2017, before changing their business model.
“I’ve been dreaming of a space to open up to people for a long time. I like coffee too, says Caroline Fortin, president of Éditions QuébecAmérique, with a laugh. We set about building this, looking for the seeds, putting together a team. It was a magnificent experience, but extremely demanding. »
Profitability was not yet achieved when the COVID-19 pandemic turned everything upside down. “It made us understand that it was not viable in the long term to manage two businesses with two ways of seeing things,” she admits.
Rather than reopening the café as it was herself, Ms.me Fortin instead decided to rent commercial space on his business premises at Café 8 oz., a roaster with experience operating a café. “They understand what to do to get to profitability. I count myself lucky to have met them,” says M.me Fort.
All of Quebec America’s production can be purchased on site, but book sales are marginal compared to food sales, estimates Xavier Girard, co-owner of Café 8 oz. He says he runs his business like any other café, with the current challenges that this represents.
La Livrerie is a work cooperative that opened on Ontario Street East in March 2020, courtesy of long-time residents of the neighborhood. “We didn’t just want to do business. We wanted to create a living space where we could come together around literature,” explains co-founder Mylène Abboud, who was inspired by the Fédération des cafés-librairies de Bretagne.
The confinement, which occurred a few months later, temporarily diverted them from their initial objective and forced them to diversify their offer. Online sales, ministerial approval to serve institutional buyers, cafes, pastries, liquor licenses and special events are now the many strings to their bow. Around 80% of their turnover remains the sale of new books. Their growing clientele lives mainly in a small radius of the café-bookstore.
“It’s not the coffee that supports the bookstore, but it’s an added offering that contributes greatly to the convivial character of the place,” believes M.me Abboud.
A double challenge
A few café-bookstores are also located in Quebec, including Le mot de tasse. The owner, Chantal Savoye, believes that the two parts of her business are complementary.
“The café suffered during the pandemic, while the bookstore did well, because people read a lot. Without the bookstore side, I don’t know if we would still be here, says Mme Savoy. Having a hybrid model allows you to develop one while the other is doing less well. »
Inflation is now restricting its sales volumes for its two types of activities. The financial challenges will be significant this year, but Mme Savoye is far from wanting to close its doors.
At the Quebec Booksellers Association, we emphasize that some of their members have long offered “spaces and services so that customers can live in the bookstore rather than just pass through it”.
“In the business models of new bookstores, we see this aspect more and more,” adds Jade Bergeron, co-director of the Association. That said, this addition represents as much a risk as an opportunity. The success of these projects depends on the needs of their customers, she believes.
Marc-André Audet rightly notes that the Les Malins café-boutique meets a need in his community, particularly because there is no bookstore in the area. As discussions are underway with people interested in taking over his business, he remains hopeful that a partnership with Les Malins can preserve the literary inclination of the place.