The beautiful books of Le port de tête

First aired on Cinq a Six (20/04/12)

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The first thing you notice when you enter Le port de tête, a bookstore in Montreal's Plateau neighbourhood, is that it doesn't look like most bookstores. You'll see architecturally beautiful handmade wooden shelves, and there are just books on the shelves: no toys, no CDs, no advertising. And the books on display are beautiful. Most of them are imported, and only available at Le port de tête. Cinq a Six host Jeanette Kelly recently paid the shop a visit, and spoke with co-owner Eric Blackburn about some of his favourite beautiful books and his store's commitment to aesthetics.

"Anywhere you look, most of the time you see ugly things, and I'm so glad to see young Quebec publishers making very very very nice, handsome objects," said Blackburn. One of his current favourite examples is a book by Daniel Canty called Wigrum, which pairs a compelling story of a collector with a stunningly illustrated layout. "The book is's always an attraction when a book is nicely made, and this is very nicely made."

Blackburn also cites Resolutions, the latest lovely book from Montreal-based publisher L'Oie de Cravan. "Every book [by them] is made with love, and with the concern that it has to be attractive," said Blackburn, who appreciates the publisher's devotion to aesthetics, since design is a key element in his purchasing process. "[Design] is very important for us. When we can buy a very nicely done book, and then another publisher makes the same book only not as nice, then we don't buy it," he said. "It's important because now with the internet and with all the competition that comes from all over the place, and these huge bookstores that have these ugly books on their shelves...we're so small and independent, we need to travel differently."

So what does Blackburn see as the components of a well-designed book? "The mise-en-page, the layout, is very important," he said. "A page needs to breathe. I don't want to be stuck on a piece of paper where the letters go too far into the margin...colour also is important, although I like very simple, white books."

The quality of the paper can elevate a book as well. "The thickness of the paper is important," said Blackburn. If paper is too thin, ink might be visible through the page. "Personally, it affects my reading."

By the same token, Blackburn is put off by bad typography and poor quality paper and ink. He also resists any books whose covers shout their own praises, trusting that his customers will trust his judgement in the books he stocks. "It may sound a bit pretentious, but I think that's the only way a bookseller can survive the competition of the internet," he said. "[Advising customers] is the most important part of our job. If we can't put ahead [the books] we love, we're just going to die faster."

Le port de tête has been going strong for five years, and hopefully it won't be dying at all. The store fills a certain niche, and provides a good living to Blackburn and his two co-owners, and they have no particular desire to expand. "As long as we stay the path that we love, I think we will be all right," he said.

To see what Eric Blackburn means, checkout Cinq a Six's photo gallery from their visit to Le port de tête.

Photo credit: Cinq a Six's Facebook page