S.W. Welch bookstore the latest victim of Shiller Lavy rent hikes

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S.W. Welch bookstore the latest victim of Shiller Lavy rent hikes
Stephen Welch had a feeling this day would come. After 14 years in Mile End, his well-loved second-hand bookstore S.W. Welch may be forced to close as landlords Shiller Lavy demand a 150% increase in rent.

“This is what they do,” he says. “They’re sharks.”

News of the rent hike broke on Thursday after local author Taras Grescoe tweeted a photo of the “for rent” sign in the shop’s window on St-Viateur Street. He says it’s just the latest in a series of rent hikes that have forced the closure or relocation of landmark Mile End businesses, many of them housed in properties that Shiller Lavy have acquired over the past several years.

“When I saw that little blue Shiller Lavy sign in the window, I said, ‘There goes the neighbourhood,’” he says. “It’s death by 1,000 cuts. When one by one the businesses that you value start to disappear, you start to question the whole character of the place.”

When Welch first moved his shop to St-Viateur in 2007, his then-landlord — the second generation owner of the building — charged only a modest amount of rent. “He was a lovely man, I paid low rent, he just wanted the store to be open,” he says. “It wasn’t a big profit maker but he was just happy to be paid on time. I had a good lease. Then Shiller bought the building.”

Welch says it is likely he will need to close up shop by summer, regardless of whether Shiller Lavy finds a tenant to replace him. “I think they’d rather it be empty than have me here,” he says.

This isn’t the first time Shiller Lavy has been embroiled in controversy over large hikes in rent. Welch’s neighbour, Pâtisserie Chez de Gaulle, was forced to close in 2019 after the real estate company demanded a 55% increase in rent. In 2018, queer-friendly café and concert venue le Cagibi was forced to leave its space on St-Viateur when property owners Jeremy Kornbluth and Brandon Shiller — the son of Shiller-Lavy co-founder Stephen Shiller —demanded an increase from $3,417 to $7,500 per month. Kornbluth and Shiller later sold the building to Shiller Lavy.

Both of those spaces remained vacant for more than a year before they were rented to upscale restaurants. “They seem to prefer to give leases to chain stores and they seem perfectly willing to let businesses stay empty until they find the kind of tenant they want,” says Grescoe. “This creates a horrible dynamic in the neighbourhood.”

Other St-Viateur Street landlords have followed in Shiller Lavy’s footsteps. During the pandemic, diner Comptoir 21 was forced to close when its landlord asked for a large increase in rent; its next door neighbour Pizza St-Viateur, later moved a block away to Bernard Street. The spaces they once occupied remain vacant. Although neighbourhood activists have called for a vacancy tax to be imposed on empty storefronts, Mayor Valérie Plante’s administration remains cool to the idea. “It’s not the right moment to do that, when we’re in the middle of a pandemic and there will be an increase in the number of vacant commercial spaces,” Plateau Mont-Royal borough mayor Luc Rabouin told Métro last week.

For many concerned about the future of Mile End, the case of S.W. Welch seems to represent a kind of tipping point. “The announcement that [Shiller Lavy] will be effectively killing S.W. Welch’s, one of the few remaining beloved institutions, is the last straw,” tweeted Shitter La Vie, which began as a Shiller Lavy parody account before taking a more serious turn. “Let’s make some shit go down.”

In a private message to Cult MTL, the person responsible for the account — who asked to remain anonymous — stresses that they are serious about launching a real-life campaign against excessive rent hikes and property speculation. “This is a work in progress,” they write. “We are just laying the foundation for a cohesive pushback against the destruction of an entire neighborhood by speculators and developers. Anyone who has felt helpless and saddened by the loss of community across the island is welcome to get in touch and join the coalition.”

Some elected officials have also expressed outrage over the situation. On Facebook, Mile End borough councillor Marie Plourde railed against S.W. Welch’s “undue rent hike” by a “greedy” landlord. “Shiller Lavy strikes again,” she wrote. “When will we have rent control for commercial leases?”

Richard Ryan, the city councillor for Mile End, says the city has few tools at its disposal. Last year, he was involved in a public consultation on what to do with rising rents and vacant commercial spaces. The resulting report cites community concerns about “Shiller Lavy buying real estate and making it inaccessible for the locals,” as well as more general worries about gentrification.

In response, Ryan says the city will push Quebec for stricter regulations of commercial leases — which fall under provincial jurisdiction — and the city is exploring the possibility of working with merchants’ associations to buy commercial properties in order to take them off the market. This wouldn’t be an option on St-Viateur specifically, however, since the street lacks the kind of professional merchants’ association found on St-Laurent Boulevard or Mont-Royal Avenue, in which membership is mandatory for all business owners along the street.

For now, Ryan says the city has asked landlords to be considerate to commercial tenants who may be struggling because of the pandemic. “There’s no problem with the majority of them,” he says. “But some are more difficult.” In the case of S.W. Welch, says Ryan, “I’m shocked. I find it doesn’t make sense after a year of pandemic.”

Ryan says neither he nor Plourde have had any contact with Shiller Lavy since the company applied to rezone some of its properties on St-Viateur a few years — an application that was rejected. Since then, the company seems to have focused on bringing restaurants and chain stores such as Lululemon and Bonlook to the street. Shiller Lavy did not respond to Cult MTL’s request for comment.

For Welch, the rent hike is déjà vu. After getting his start selling used books at a flea market in Hudson, Welch opened his first shop in Côte-St-Luc in 1984. He later moved to NDG, then finally settled on St-Laurent Boulevard, across the street from Schwartz’s, in 1992. He was there for 15 years until a 20% rent hike prompted him to move north.

Since then, S.W. Welch has become as much a fixture on St-Viateur as the bagel shop, Café Olimpico or Club Social. “It’s a place where you can drop it, sit on the sofa, pick up an amazing book you wouldn’t find at the chain stores, chit chat or complain with Stephen or whoever’s working,” says Grescoe. “A bookstore is a keystone business. It’s the indicator species of a healthy community. When those start to disappear, you’re losing the character of a place.”

Welch says he will keep the business running if he can find an affordable space elsewhere in the neighbourhood. “I would not move out of the neighbourhood,” he says. “I’ll be 69 this year — I’m too old to do this all again to start up in another hood, to really build up the business. I’ve been in business 37 years. But I don’t want to retire. I live books, I dream books. This is what I do.” ■

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