How one bookstore adapted to survive the pandemic
Argo Bookshop, Montreal’s oldest English-language bookstore, is returning to business and reaching readers in novel ways as Quebec’s lockdown eases.
After teaching linguistics at Concordia University and managing a successful YouTube channel, The Ling Space, New Jersey-born Moti Lieberman, together with co-owner Adèle-Elise Prévost, made the decision to acquire the bookstore from the previous owner in 2017.
Located on Ste-Catherine Street in the Shaughnessy Village, Argo, which opened its doors for the first time in 1966, was ordered to close on Mar. 23 like all other non-essential businesses in Quebec. The lockdown has since eased, and Argo is adapting to the evolving situation.
“We thought we could continue to serve as an anchor for the literary community,” said Lieberman. “Bookstores are really important features of communities, and without one I think this area would be impoverished.”
Argo specializes in books on linguistics, Japanese literature and books authored by LGBTQ writers.
“Diversity became a watchword for us,” said Lieberman. “Whoever you are, you can come in and see yourself reflected in the books that we are selling because we think it should be an inclusive and welcoming space. That’s really what we view the mission of the store to be.
“Our business model before [COVID-19] was really focused on the local community,” Lieberman added. Allowing customers to “come in and discover stuff which they wouldn’t necessarily have run into before is not possible now.”
In response to the pandemic, the bookshop offers its clients deliveries and curbside pick-ups.
“We had to really retool the way the business works,” Lieberman explained. “We had to cancel all in-store events for the year. We had a lot of stuff that had been planned for the summer, which was in a way the hardest thing for me.”
Instead of giving up on events altogether, Argo has been hosting readings, book clubs, and virtual author visits via Zoom for the past few months.
“In a way, we’ve expanded some of the people that we work with,” said Lieberman. “The vibe isn’t the same as having everyone in a room together and building an atmosphere that way together, but I think some of these events we wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise, like the one where we invited people from around the world.”
While the owners have found creative ways of reaching readers, Lieberman misses the store as it used to be.
“The thing that I miss most is the ability to just talk with people about books and about topics and authors that they’re really passionate about,” said Lieberman. “The way we have to do things currently is definitely a step down, but we felt that it was important that we would give people activities to do during the period where lockdown was happening so we actually extended our event range a bit.”
Argo is taking precautions to ensure the security of its clients, including regular handwashing, installing plexiglass screens by the cash register, and requiring the use of masks and hand sanitizer. The store is also implementing other measures like limiting the store’s capacity and discouraging browsing clients from handling books.
Despite the bookstore’s challenges, Argo’s delivery service has allowed it to reach new customers, especially in the months of April and May.
“A lot of people found us during that time who I don’t think were familiar with the store already,” he said.
Business has stabilized after a rocky start to the lockdown.
“I don’t want to say that we’re out of the woods,” Lieberman said. “But the support from the community and people who have been going out of their way to order stuff from us because they wanted us to continue being here… we’re really overwhelmed by it emotionally.”
What are Argo’s plans for the future?
“If we can make it through this, we would like to continue doing the sort of stuff we had been doing before and maybe get back to some of the initiatives for bringing in authors,” Lieberman said. “But so much is up in the air.”
For more information about events, visit Argo Bookshop at 1915 Ste-Catherine St W. or https://www.argobookshop.ca/.
Photo by Kit Mergeart