Beloved Mile End bookstore being forced out due to rent increase

The owner of S.W. Welch bookstore says he can't afford to pay the significant increase his landlord his asking for. This comes after a very difficult year for non-essential stores, including lockdown closures and loss of foot traffic and tourism dollars.

The owner of S.W. Welch bookstore says he can't afford to pay significant hike

After 15 years in this location, S. W. Welch book shop in Mile End is being forced out because it can't afford the rent hike. (CBC)

Stephen Welch has been in the book business for almost 40 years. For the last 15, he's operated his store on Saint-Viateur Street in Mile End, catering to the intellectuals and artists who make the neighbourhood a cultural hub.

But now, facing a significant commercial rent hike, Welch says he's being forced out of his space.

"At a certain point a buzz happens. And that's when large developers start to see that there's something going on on the street and want to get in on the action," he told CBC News. "You can be paying a fairly low rate as I was and then, when the lease is up, they can put it up as much as they want."

Welch said his current lease ends in August, but when he tried to negotiate with the building's owner, real estate developer Shiller Lavy, they weren't able to come to an agreement.

"I just said I want the same deal for two years and they said no, no no, we want the moon," said Welch. 

"I understand that Shiller Lavy is a business and they want to make money, that's what they're doing. But it doesn't have to be predatory and profits don't have to be so high as to alter and change the street."

Developer Danny Lavy told CBC News in a phone interview that Welch's rent was originally low because he had a long-term lease with an outdated rate.

He said the current hike amounts to an increase of about $1,500 per month.

Lavy said he had no choice but to up the cost of rent for the bookstore because of what he pays in property taxes and insurance on the building.

The storefront of S. W. Welch bookstore now has a 'for rent' sign in the window. (CBC)

For Welch, the hike comes after a particularly difficult financial year for non-essential businesses.

"It's a pandemic, there's no tourists on the street, I was closed three months last year," he said. 

It's also the second time Welch has had to move because of increasing commercial rents. Welch was priced out of his previous location on St-Laurent Boulevard as real estate on the strip became more in demand.

He added that small, independent shops like his give character to the neighbourhood and make it a destination.

"You go to anywhere in Canada or the U.S., you go to the main strip, you're going to see exactly the same thing, the same big box stores, the same fast food stores. There's very little diversity. Holding onto diversity is a great thing if you can."

Stephen Welch said he tried to negotiate with his landlord, but they were not able to come to an arrangement. (CBC)

More protections needed, says city councillor

Welch said he'd like the province to bring in new legislation to protect small businesses from being driven out of trendy areas.

Richard Ryan, city councillor for Mile End, told CBC News that there is a provincial registry designed to monitor commercial rent increases but it's not mandatory.

He said making this registry mandatory was a key recommendation following city consultations on vacant storefronts in commercial areas.

Ryan added that this is not the first time businesses in the area have suffered and closed due to sudden rental increases.

He gave the example of the indie cafe and event space Le Cagibi, which was formerly located at the corner of St-Laurent Boulevard at St-Viateur Street.

The business was forced to close and relocate to Little Italy due to a similar substantial rent increase.

Lorraine Lévesque is the owner of Bohême Vintage in Mile End. (CBC)

Across the street from S. W. Welch, a vintage clothing store owner said she's worried the Mile End is losing a lot of the character that makes it unique.

Lorraine Lévesque has been in business in the same spot since 1997, and has seen a shift recently.

"It's been really bad. Because you can see vacant stores all the time, and it's just, it's killing the neighbourhood," said Lévesque.

Lévesque said if the Mile End is to retain its characteristic charm, there needs to be limits on commercial rents the way there are on residential properties in Quebec.

"We would wish that someone with some power could do something."

With files from Josh Grant