Interview With a Bookstore: Librairie Drawn & Quarterly
Visiting Montreal's Destination for Graphic Novels (and More)
Librairie Drawn & Quarterly is a small independent bookstore in Montreal, Canada that celebrated its ten-year anniversary last year. Owned by the comics publishing house Drawn & Quarterly, the store offers a range of local and international books in French and English.
What’s your favorite section of the store?
Chantale: It’s so hard to pick a favorite. Each corner of the store has its own idiosyncrasies. We love our Drawn and Quarterly table, always full with the new and hot graphic titles put out by the titular publishing company. I am also particularly fond of our very recently created “erotic” section—a small shelf with sexy, intimate, and non-conforming publications, along with local zines and more widely published material, new titles and classics. And our Staff Picks shelf! How fun to see the eclectic reading habits of the eclectic staff on display.
Arizona: At our children’s store, La Petite Drawn and Quarterly, we have an Indigenous authors section. It is very popular and there is a selection for all ages. We feel it is important to feature these books for emerging readers to broaden their understanding of Canada’s cultural makeup.
What would you say is your bookstore’s specialty?
Chantale: Comics! We love comics. We sell a curated variety of comics—English and French. No surprise since our parent company is Drawn & Quarterly, the Montreal-based comics publishing company founded in 1989. And we also pride ourselves on featuring a lot of diversity in the authors we carry.
What’s your favorite book to handsell?
Luke: I love handselling Drawn and Quarterly books, our stores’ specialty. It has been a joy to handsell Nick Drnaso’s Sabrina, this month, on the heels of Drnaso’s graphic novel being the first ever to be nominated for the Man Booker. Aisha Franz’s Shit Is Real is so relatable and is a beautifully rendered and creative story about singledom, partnership, and 21st-century alienation. Getting to handsell Julie Doucet—the first author published by D+Q—and Chester Brown—the first graphic novel published by D+Q—in D+Q’s flagship location, that people come from all over the world to visit, is a real treat.
Sophie: My coworkers are probably incredibly tired to hear me talk about Kory Stamper’s Word by Word, but every time someone asks me for a good non-fiction book, I immediately suggest it and get a bit too excited describing it. The author works at Merriam-Webster, and reveals what it’s like to define words all day—the politics of it, but also how to deal with know-it-all customers, or the just the simplest words, like “take.” Stamper is hilarious, and her job is fascinating—it’s just the perfect book for any word lover!
Chantale: Whenever I successfully handsell Being Here is Everything by Marie Darrieussecq (translated by Penny Hueston) I feel like my job is done and I can just go home. Darrieussecq’s writing on the life of painter Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876-1907) is tender, so attentive to Paula’s expressions of desire in her letters, diary entries, and paintings. And Paula’s life, full of self-assured ambition and intense love, was wrenching. She wanted so much and did so much, yet died at 31, 19 days after her first child was born. I love it when I’m able to handsell a secretly powerful book that isn’t flashy or seductive at first glance.
Eli: I really love handselling Helen Oyeyemi’s What Is Not Yours is Not Yours. It’s an absolute work of genius and Oyeyemi’s style of writing is like nothing I’ve read before. Short stories are much harder to sell than novels, so it’s always a harder sell, but when someone buys it and comes back into the store to let me know they loved it, it’s one of the best parts of the job. I also really love selling That Time I Loved You by Carrianne Leung. I once sold it to someone who’s actually from Scarborough not knowing this fact, so it was really exciting to sell to someone would be learning more about their own childhood suburb.
Benjamin: I feel a small personal victory whenever a customer purchases a book from Gaspereau Press. Based in my hometown in Nova Scotia, Gaspereau are thoughtful and thorough in every stage of production, publishing books that are as laudable as physical tomes as they are conduits of beautiful ideas. I often (giddily) recommend George Elliott Clarke’s Execution Poems, Don McKay’s Vis à Vis, and Sue Goyette’s A Brief Reincarnation of a Girl.
Arizona: At the children’s store, I love to hand-sell Life and I: A Story About Death by Elisabeth Helland Larsen and Marine Schneider. It is a companion to their book I am Life. The two work so well together. I have read a lot of books that try to explain death to children but none do quite as good a job as this one. In both books, Life and Death are the main characters and they are drawn beautifully. Here is a quote to show you how luminous the writing is: ‘’If you are afraid of me or of Life, I can whisper something to you. . . Love! Love can transform sorrow and hate. Love can visit you every single day. Love does not die even when it meets me. I am Death a part of life, a part of love, and a part of you.’’
Who’s your favorite regular?
Chantale: Savithri! She’s been coming in for years, sometimes multiple times a week. She’s older than most of our clientele and browses each table ever so attentively and patiently. She also has great taste, buying staff favorites and weird, funky titles.
Alyssa: She’s also always buying books for her grandkids. They must be the best read children on the planet, I’m very jealous.
What’s the craziest situation you’ve ever had to deal with in the store?
Luke: At one point in the fall of 2017, the bookstore was used for a film shoot. We closed early, and 45+ crew and actors packed into our store. Lights were drilled into the ceiling in odd places, books and tables were strewn across the store, and one scene of the film—a book launch—was filmed over and over and over. It was uncanny to be in a space that one cares for, and to see it transformed totally, under the care of a film crew. The shoot lasted until 5 am! Once the crew had the final shot, they packed up their gear, unzipped all of the lights and departed in about two minutes flat.
What’s been the biggest surprise about running a bookstore?
Eli: I think the thing that has surprised me most is what sells and what doesn’t. Sometimes it’s so arbitrary! I definitely keep up with book reviewing and awards, so I know what’s being talked about, but it’s still surprising sometimes that really interesting looking titles or titles that are often talked about won’t sell and then other titles you wouldn’t think would sell end up selling a bunch. Right now, All About Love is selling like hot cakes even though it was published in 2001.
Tell us about your most memorable author event.
Sruti: There are so many! The list has varied from Alison Bechdel, Eileen Myles, Alexander Chee, Gloria Steinem, Chris Ware, Miranda July, Roxane Gay, Neil Gaiman, David Byrne, Lynda Barry, Daniel Clowes and Carrie Brownstein. It’s hard to pick just one. A personal favorite, however, is the first event I was able to help coordinate, featuring the eternal dream that is Zadie Smith. We are very thoughtful in our conversational pairings. In organizing this, it was evident Smith’s empathetic narratives paralleled beautifully with those in Jenny Zhang’s debut Sour Heart. The two had such a stimulating conversation that enraptured our entire audience. . . “Politicians are the ones who have to be consistent and toe a line. Artists should demand the freedom to be inconsistent,” said Zadie. A total dream!
What’s your message to Amazon (and Amazon customers)?
Alyssa: Your algorithms will never replace human recommendation!
Kennedy: The community that comes from independent bookstores is unparalleled and irreplaceable. If you care about the vibrancy that independent bookstores add to our neighborhoods, shop local!
Eli: One thing Amazon doesn’t have is real-live book clubs. We host a variety of monthly book clubs hosted by D&Q staff members to talk about books we love, like the New Reads Book Club, where we read new contemporary literature, the Reading Across Borders Book Club, where we read translated works of fiction, and the Graphic Novel Book Club, where we read comics! I recently hosted a graphic novel book club for Bye Bye Babylon by Lamia Ziadé and it was really exciting getting to chat with the other Arabs and Lebanese people who came to discuss. Getting to hear different people’s personal experiences relating to the Lebanese Civil War, whether it was personal experience or stories told to them by their families, added a whole other fascinating layer to the conversation.
What’s a children’s book that made you cry/that you think all adults should read?
Chantale: A Bubble by Genéviève Castrée is the saddest and most beautiful book I’ve read to my children. It was crafted near the end of the artist’s life, intended as a gift to her daughter. Her illness takes on the form of a bubble in the child’s eyes. The bubble is both isolating and protective, distancing and enveloping for both.
Alyssa: Kai Cheng Thom’s From the Stars in the Sky to the Fish in the Sea is also a beautiful, touching book, very much in the vein of Robert Munsch’s Love You Forever.
Eli: Julián Is a Mermaid is a fantastic little picture book about a young boy who dresses up as a mermaid and his abuela who takes him to see other people who like to dress up like him. In a world where gender nonconformity is shunned and punished, it was such a touching moment when his abuela saw him dressing up, accepted him, and helped further his interest in beautiful feminine clothing.
Kennedy: This One Summer by Jillian and Mariko Tamaki is one of my favorites. Gorgeously illustrated in purple hues, this coming-of-age graphic novel is so smart and thoughtful. Great for young and old readers alike.
What’s a bestseller that could only be big in your town?
Luke: Louis Riel by Chester Brown is the bestselling book ever in our bookstore and re-invented the bio-comic. Released 15 years ago, Chester magnificently tells the story of the folk hero and leader of the Metis in 19th-century Canada. Perhaps there is something about the blend of Chester Brown being from Montreal, the language dynamics/politics in the story which are so relevant to Montreal, and the history explored in the text, that makes it such a hit at the Librairie Drawn and Quarterly.
Lauriane: Since our bookstore is in Mile End, a lot of tourists visit us. They often ask for books that were written by Montrealers and that are about our beautiful city. This is why Les Saisons de Montréal by Raphaelle Barbanègre, Mile End by Michel Hellman, Le Montréaler, a collective book with illustrations by local artists in the style of New Yorker covers and Les chroniques du Mile End by Jorge Camarotti are some of our local bestsellers.
Kennedy: At the kids store we sell everything by Elise Gravel. She is a fantastic illustrator and writer from Montreal and her books are always hilarious and informative. We sell her picture books and novels constantly, in French and in English, and her board book, Une Patate À Vélo (only available in French) is our top selling book at 176!
L’ABC du Monsieur Pizza
L’ABC du Monsieur Pizza is also one of our best-sellers. It is a children’s book written in both French and English on each page with adorable drawings by another Montreal illustrator. It’s so popular in Montreal because it works for either anglophone or francophone kids who are learning to read in either language.
Nick Drnaso, Sabrina
A masterpiece. Sabrina (published by Drawn & Quarterly) is a disquieting look at the post-truth era and how those most vulnerable after a highly-publicized tragedy are targeted and bombarded with abuse. Zadie Smith had this to say: “Nick Drnaso’s Sabrina is the best book—in any medium—I have read about our current moment.” It’s no wonder that this year it has become the first graphic book to be longlisted for the Man Booker Prize ever.
Ottessa Moshfegh, My Year of Rest and Relaxation
New Moshfegh means a new darkly funny tale of alienation and existential ennui. Here, back in the year 2000, our narrator is a young, financially supported, educated woman who rejects expectations of her and notions of how to make a life.
Jordy Rosenberg, Confessions of the Fox
There have been rave reviews pouring out for this novel about 18th-century pickpocket and jailbreaker Jack Sheppard. It’s both historical, based on a true person, and theatrically speculative and political, imagining Sheppard as a trans man.
Yvan Alagbé, Yellow Negroes and Other Imaginary Creatures
These stories—written between 1994 and 2011 and collected in English for the first time—are shadowy glancing blows to the heart. Alagbé’s style is incredibly disarming, using stark black-and-white brushwork to animate the dichotomies that dominate his characters’ lives: oppression and freedom, trust and distrust, love and hate.
Anne Boyer, A Handbook of Disappointed Fate
Smooth, lyric essays from the author of Garments Against Women. We turn to her to ask unthinkable questions with impossible answers.