A Montreal mill where handmade paper was made for decades is closing
Saint-Armand paper mill has a storied past, but it's time to move on, owner says
It's a Wednesday afternoon in August, after what has so far been a particularly rainy summer, and there is water rising through the floor of the Papeterie Saint-Armand.
It's not a new problem. The floor is usually wet in the back room, where a machine called the beater — a massive metal tub with an imposing flywheel — sits near piles of rags, the raw ingredients used to make high-quality paper.
But today, a fuse has blown and the chihuahua-sized sump pump that normally keeps the rising floodwaters at bay has gone silent.
Soon the water will reach the rags, piles of jute, sisal and cotton.
David Carruthers, spry at 82, his hands dark from grease, wades in the shallow water and fiddles with the pump. Carruthers, who has made fine paper here for nearly five decades, says the job keeps him in shape. There's always something to do.
When he and his wife, Denise Lapointe, 66, aren't grappling with flooding, they make paper that artists, printers and bookbinders prize for its unique qualities. But soon, they won't be doing it here, in the basement of an old linoleum factory in Ville-Émard, on the banks of the Lachine Canal.
They're downscaling, moving out and heading to a rural property in the Laurentians to continue making paper in a more peaceful, and satisfying, environment, one that doesn't flood constantly.
The usual reasons in a growing and changing city are partly to blame: rising rents and high taxes, trouble finding people willing to do long hours of manual labour but, ultimately, Carruthers and Lapointe are looking forward to a change of scenery.
They'll still make paper, as they have for nearly 50 years, but it will be in smaller batches, for fewer artisans, who are willing to make the trek to find them.
Their departure has riled a community of artists who value the paper and see no alternative to it.
"The advantage of paper like this is that the ink slides well," says Diane Coache, an amateur bookbinder who loves to draw with quill and ink. "It's made for that and it makes magnificent textures.
"When I hear places like this are closing, for me it's as if I'm losing something that lets us create."
Coache leaves the shop with a fresh stack of paper that she plans to make into a new sketchbook.
It's a 30-minute trip here, for her. But when Carruthers and Lapointe move to the countryside, it will be an hour and a half.
"They're going to be far," she says, but then, she thinks about it. "Other shops are constrained and everyone has the same products. Here, you can find unique things."
Maybe she will try to make the trip, after all.
The paper is worth it to her — and to many others.
The process of making it begins with the rags, which come from the scraps of fashion students' projects, or from the Montreal fire department's discarded navy blue t-shirts — pure cotton, which is sometimes hard to find.
Carruthers chops the cloth into a blended mass, then sends it into the beater, where it mixes with water to form a thick pulp.
The pulp is then layered thin between sheets of felt whose fibres leave an impression on the paper. It's a process Carruthers has mastered.
In 1982, Carruthers was commissioned for a very important project: he used Canadian fibres to make the paper for the Proclamation of the Constitution Act, which was signed by Queen Elizabeth II. One year later, he used the same pulp to make the sheets for the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms.
Once the paper dries, it is ready to be inspected by Lapointe and stacked near the front of the shop.
It isn't always hectic in the Papeterie. It's often quiet and the employees describe their work as "zen-like." But on this particular day, a sparrow that has been known to fly into the basement mill and become lost decides to pay a visit.
While Carruthers troubleshoots the minor flooding that threatens to become slightly more inconvenient than it already is, he also flicks the lights on and off — an attempt to get the poor bird to leave.
But it doesn't, at least right away. It stays indoors, chirping somewhere amid the machinery.
Even still, customers wander among the piles, many of them handling the sheets, feeling the different textures and fibres unique to each kind of paper.
"Some people spend hours here. It gives them ideas," Lapointe says as she inspects a white, unmarked sheet, looking for defects.
Recently, the customers have been more likely to tell Lapointe or Carruthers — or post on social media — about how sad they are to see them leave.
Carruthers started making paper in 1979, when interest rates were high, and he has kept the business afloat, thriving and contributing to the creative community since then, first alone and then with Lapointe.
It's a story that should inspire, Lapointe said, not sadden.
"What they've done is unique in Canada," said Jan Elsted, who, along with her husband, Crispin, runs Barbarian Press, an artisanal publishing company out of Mission, B.C., and one of the paper mill's best customers.
"No one else has made paper of that quality to that extent and I think they should be immensely proud of all that they've accomplished."
"It's a privilege to use their paper," said Crispin, "and they're lovely people, too."
But a lot has changed since Carruthers began making paper.
Factories closed. The canal itself transformed into an urban nature park and cycling thoroughfare. There's a microbrewery and a coffee roaster in their building now.
An artists' collective used to be nearby. "It was an ecosystem," Lapointe said, describing how its members would help each other out. There was a welder, a framer, a glass-maker — always someone to lend a hand if one was needed.
They're gone now, and Lapointe and Carruthers guess that there are probably fewer artists, in general, in the city now.
"I don't know where they all went," says Carruthers, as he stands near the beater, still fiddling with the pump. "Some of them couldn't afford it. … That's a city's life cycle, I guess."
Lapointe says she won't miss the place when they move out sometime near the end of the year, but she will miss the people, the creative types who would meander and inspect the paper, always dreaming up new projects for it.
"Some customers we've known for at least 30 years," she says. "You never know the next person who's going to walk in here."
Finally, Carruthers gets an idea. He grabs an extension cord and plugs the pump into a working socket on the other side of the shop.
Soon, it's humming along again, and the water is flowing into a working drain, heading back into the city's system.
The piles of rags are safe and so is the paper mill.