Something’s Missing on Ste. Cats
Community Saddened as Local Institution Closes Suddenly
Sometime around lunchtime, at 1909 Ste. Catherine St. W., a phone rings and a mild-mannered, thick-accented gentleman picks up.
“Hey, Elie, could ya make me a croissant—ham and cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, a little mayo, little mustard?” asks Franklin Grigat on the other end of the line, calling from his magazine shop, Mediaphile, a few doors down.
Grigat has been making phone calls just like this one almost daily for the past 17 years. Or at least, he had been until the end of January, when La Croissanterie Linda, a 20-something year-old institution, abruptly closed its doors.
“Its like the end of the era,” Grigat said. “Everyone will sum it up in different words—but it’s a sadness.
“You know, that store wasn’t just a store—it was part of a community, and I guess when you lose a member of your community, there is a sense of loss.”
Take a stroll from the Faubourg to Alexis Nihon Plaza and you are bound to bump into someone that has something to say about Elias “Elie” Darrous.
Darrous has been making sandwiches, serving coffee and piping the same classical music over the speakers since he took ownership of La Croissanterie in 1992.
“He was always the most welcoming guy,” said Eric Mendoza, a Concordia student who had been a regular since 2007. “Every time I came in, there would always be that brief moment of I-think-I-recognize-you, then he would remember, and we would have a conversation of how things were going.”
Mendoza also remembers his encounters with Darrous’ sister-in-law Theresa, who is also well-known around the area from her time working at the shop.
“It was kind of a big deal to try and get to know her,” he recalled. “She seemed to be the one that was the hardest to please, the hardest to crack—it became sort of the informal staff bet, like if you could have a conversation with her, you’d made it.”
J.P. Karwacki, one of three owners of neighbouring Argo Bookshop, remembers the Croissanterie as a staple he could always count on.
“I suppose it had this sense that you were actually going into someone else’s home,” he said. “They hadn’t really changed anything in the longest time, which is kind of the point—from when it started to when it ended, nothing had really changed.”
Grigat says there was something special about the longevity of the place.
“It becomes part of someone’s routine,” he said. “Somebody who was 20 when they first walked in is now 46 and is going in with his own kids.”
For many of the regulars that work in the neighbourhood, the shop became more than just a comfortable place to sip a cappuccino, but a communication hub.
“It really helped me tap into knowing the community better,” said Mendoza, who used to work at the nearby Movieland, which folded recently. “I realized that everybody that had opened a business 20-something years ago knew each other, and that there was this weird web of community downtown.”
Nafrin Talad, owner of nearby falafel restaurant Nilufar, is a longtime friend of Darrous’ and a client that has frequented La Croissanterie for as long as it’s existed.
“For me it was a local coffee shop where you’d meet all the neighbours and talk,” she said. “All of the news of the area, I would get it from there.”
“Everyone will sum it up in different words—but it’s a sadness.You know, that store wasn’t just a store—it was part of a community, and I guess when you lose a member of your community, there is a sense of loss.”
—Franklin Grigat, owner of Mediaphile
Locals, Loyalty and Loss
Times are tough for small, local businesses on the western portion of Ste. Catherine St.—much has changed since the early ’90s.
“We closed down because business was getting bad,” Darrous explained. “Before, I was the only one. There was no Starbucks, Tim Horton’s, Station des Sports—it was only me.”
He says that while the decision to shut down happened almost overnight, the reality that justified it was a long time coming.
“I tried to borrow money from my friend, we discussed this and then figured there was no way to continue,” he said. “We don’t want to stop, we feel bad, and we kept saying, ‘Maybe next month we’re going to be okay’—so we waited, and waited and finally we said no.”
For Grigat, he says the shock of the shop’s abrupt closing is perhaps what makes it most difficult to digest.
“People are having trouble letting go for various reasons, but having to deal with a community loss with an end so unceremonious—no one had a chance to say goodbye.”
But local shop owners facing similar struggles empathize with Darrous’ misfortune, and will avidly attest to the trying times.
“They couldn’t do it, it’s hard—people aren’t supporting them,” Talad said, adding that her business is experiencing similar challenges.
“The landlord doesn’t put the rent down, our expenses are really high, the overhead is difficult and taxes are high,” she said. “But the real sad part of this story is that people don’t support the small local businesses—there is no loyalty.”
But, if you ask Darrous what he’ll miss most, he’ll tell you it’s the students.
“The younger people used to come by,” said Talad. “But now they just go for the smaller prices, I guess.”
She adds that family-run businesses offering quality products simply can’t compete with the free giveaways, lower prices and homogenized products of their corporate neighbours.
As for Darrous—he’s currently entertaining the possibility of entering a partnership with an old friend in Toronto, to start up another café in an area with better financial prospects. But for now, leaving’s been tough.
“I really miss it,” he said with a sigh. “But what can I do?”
Big Shoes to Fill
In response to the vacancy, the owners of Argo Bookshop have issued an online solicitation to “aspiring café owners.”
The posting on Facebook makes a plea to new entrepreneurs who might consider moving into the location, requesting that the art-deco interior and location’s value are preserved.
The call-out is complete with cost and contact information for those seriously interested in renting the space.
“With more and more bars and restaurants sprouting up along our strip, we want to keep locales for love and leisure,” reads the posting. “And one less-crowded coffee house to use the Internet in while you nurse one Americano for two to three hours.”
Karwacki says the two businesses used to share many of the same customers, courtesy of the natural relationship between a good cup of coffee and a good read—something he hopes will transcend the space’s new ownership.
“Bookstores and cafés seem to have become synonymous with one another,” he explained, adding that with La Croissanterie no longer there, Argo has essentially lost its other half.
Just when the “À Louer” sign will be removed—and who will take over—is still unknown, but as far as filling the void goes, the café’s next-door neighbour is making an effort.
In the next few months, Grigat’s magazine store will be expanding its repertoire to include an espresso bar.
“I feel like I’ve got to replace that little cachet,” explained Grigat. “It’s going to be different, of course, but maybe people will feel some sort of comfort and that they can hang out here, like they hung out there.”
He says coffee is something he’s always been passionate about, but had never considered offering because competing with his long-time neighbour and friend was simply out of the question.
“Now that he’s not there anymore, I’m going to take this as an opportunity,” said Grigat. “But this isn’t about making money, this is about making people happy—and if it does, then, you know, the money will come.”
He says he’s still working out the kinks, but is aiming to ensure that traditions that had become a staple of La Croissanterie live on—such as the much-loved Singer sowing machine tables, good coffee, but mostly the friendly and personable customer service.
“It’ll be a different sort of vibe,” he said. “But it most certainly won’t be a Second Cup vibe.”
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