Running in to grab a couple of beers, I’m greeted by the clerk. He’s an odd guy, with a closely shaved crop of black hair and a self-important, Duddy Kravitzesque charm that comes across whether he’s addressing you in English or French. There’s a bit of irony in his greeting, and in the way he dresses, too: sometimes he wears a suit to work, other times he’s entirely in black. He listens to punk music and likes to read Anne Rice novels. Where New York has its bodegas and Korean markets, and Paris l’arabe du coin, Montreal has the depanneur—or dépanneur, if you prefer—though most people just say the dep.
It’s easy to spot a depanneur: look for a large blue Molson Dry placard in the window, which tends to make any other signage pretty much superfluous. Out front, a few big Quilnot delivery bikes might be splayed across the sidewalk, accompanied by delivery boys catching their breath before the next laborious livraison. Inside, the dep is a blast of narrow, cluttered rows, newspaper racks, coolers and god knows what else, all in an area about the same size as a tiny one-bedroom apartment. 7-Eleven this ain’t.
In fact, it’s hard not to notice Montreal’s depanneurs. They’re everywhere (although they occasionally relent to make room for a pharmacy or café, maybe a strip club or two). On Bernard Avenue in the Mile End district, there are five depanneurs in as many blocks, not incuding the café named (what else?) Le Dépanneur.
Dépanneur comes from the French word panne, which refers to a lack of something. (A blackout, for instance, is a panne d’électricité.) In France, the word came to mean a breakdown mechanic, but in Quebec, it’s a corner store, dutifully relieving those oh-so-inconvenient pannes de cigarettes and pannes d’alcool.
Surprisingly, the term dépanneur is fairly recent. In the 1970s, the Office québécois de la langue française, the province’s very own version of the Académie française, was dismayed by the multitude of words used to describe the corner store—including anglicisms such as magasin d’accommodation, from “accommodation store” (an odd bit of Canadiana that seems as quaint and out-of-date as “Hinterland Who’s Who”). So the Office recommended that the term dépanneur be used instead. Unlike similar attempts in France (in 1987, the French government promoted the term bazarette, but it never caught on), dépanneur quickly integrated itself into the local parlance of both languages, bridging the widening cultural divide of the time. English-speaking Montrealers are the only Canadians who buy beer at “the dep.”
Here are the basics: depanneurs are open later than most shops, usually until 11 pm, when the government requires them to stop selling beer. Deps provide the essentials in life, like toilet paper, beer, cigarettes and chocolate. Most depanneurs allow phone orders and provide free delivery, a bonus during long, frigid winters.
The best deps, however, have little flourishes that make them destinations for more than just the people on the block. Dépanneur BBQ Los Amigos (on St. Laurent near Rachel, in Montreal’s Portuguese enclave) sells barbecue chicken alongside the phone cards. On Querbes in Park Ex, Marché Bollywood—which has a sign in French and Arabic, but not Hindi strangely enough—boasts a selection of Indian films and music next to the beer and wine. On Mont Royal Avenue at de la Roche, there’s a dep that sells ice cream and churros; but since there are never any churros left when I visit, a better bet is the Supermarché Andes Gloria on St. Laurent near Marie Anne.
Beer, however, is the backbone of the depanneur. Super Marché Rahman (“Le Paradis de la bière”) on Laurier Avenue sells over two hundred varieties. “I’ve had all of them,” admits the owner. “I love beer.” Another depanneur owner, when asked how much beer he sells in proportion to everything else, answers simply, “A lot.” Even though he sells more cigarettes than beer, he says it’s beer that brings in the most profit.
Oddly enough, he might have former Quebec premier Maurice Duplessis to thank for that. Back in the 1940s, according to local columnist Mike Boone, the province’s autocratic head honcho gave small groceries a leg up by bestowing upon them the exclusive right to sell beer. Duplessis, of course, wasn’t a great man—there’s a reason his era is called la grande noirceur (the great darkness)—but his move was gold for the little guy on the corner.
Corner groceries have been the lifeblood of the city since long before anyone called them depanneurs. “Neighbourhoods lived out of those stores,” recalls Mendel Kramer, a professor of humanities at Montreal’s Dawson College. Kramer grew up above Kramer and Waldman, a grocery store at Esplanade and Villeneuve, in the Mile End neighbourhood, that his father co-owned until the early seventies. The store plied its trade in fruit, veggies, cheese and meats for seven long days a week. It didn’t have a beer licence, but took and delivered orders anyway—via Progress, a partner grocery store across the street.
Thursday was the big delivery day, when Kramer and Waldman hauled out their truck and took groceries to homes in adjacent neighbourhoods, like Outremont and Park Extension. It was a tough job. Mendel’s father worked thirteen days out of fourteen, and on his day off he filled in for his partner during the lunch break.
Sundays were particularly rough. In keeping with the law, says Mendel, the number of staff and type of merchandise they could sell were restricted. Sundays always meant customers standing in line while one clerk frantically ran around—and before you knew it, you were out of milk. It was, as they say, un vrai bordel.
In spite of it all, the job had its benefits. Kramer and Waldman had a great rapport with their clientele. “From time to time,” Mendel remembers, “my brother and I would come down at the end of the day and help close up. My father and his partner found it quite hard to turn people away. [My dad] conducted his social life through the store.” It was, for all intents and purposes, a social club, where people whiled away the afternoon with long conversations. Locals who moved out of the area sometimes came back for their weekly shopping. “You didn’t just get your stuff and pay,” says Mendel. Well, only if you really wanted to, but that’s no fun, now is it?
When Kramer and Waldman opened, Mile End was part of the Jewish ghetto—Mordecai Richler’s old stomping ground. Today, the neighbourhood has changed considerably (Greeks, Italians, Portuguese and now yuppies live there), but old standbys like Wilensky’s Light Lunch and the St. Viateur Bagel Shop still churn out mystery meat Specials and the city’s best bagels. In the grand scheme of things, Kramer and Waldman wasn’t the most adaptive store, but even it managed to go with the flow: feta cheese found its way onto the shelf during the Greek migration.
Mendel Kramer is awfully dismissive of today’s depanneurs. Many of them, he says, are staffed by students who couldn’t care less about customers or what they sell. He has a point: many modern depanneurs resemble soulless suburban minimarts, a result of corporate chains trying to corner the corner business.
That said, even chains are doing their bit to ape the neighbourhood interaction that gives depanneurs their charm. Couche-Tard, a Montreal-based company that has expanded across Canada and the United States, gobbling up Mac’s, Dairy Mart and now Circle K—it owns more than 4,600 stores in all—has a policy of adapting to its environs. “When you know who your customers are, that can give you an edge on the competition,” the chain’s president, Alain Bouchard, told the New York Times in an October interview. Stores in areas with a younger demographic might have a wide selection of Froster or Sloche iced drinks, while a store with a more mature clientele might have a coffee bar. The Times article describes a Couche-Tard (“night owl”) in suburban Montreal with a NASA theme, right down to spacesuit uniforms. Another store in the Latin Quarter is filled with graffiti and exposed ventilation ducts, presumably to attract the area’s students and squeegee-wielding punks.
It feels weird, though, to get chummy with a teenaged Couche-Tard employee in a spacesuit uniform. There’s so much more to talk about with the Vietnamese immigrant who owns your corner dep. Thankfully, gimmicky corporate themes only reaffirm that it’s the little idiosyncrasies and the easy relationship between customer and owner that make a dep more than just a convenience store—and make it successful.
In most of the city, real depanneurs, hodgepodge and slightly worn, are what create the streetscape. Their disappearance can undo the sense of a quartier. When Kramer and Waldman retired, they sold their little store. “There’s no sign of a grocery left,” says Mendel Kramer. Today, on a rainy afternoon at the intersection of Esplanade and Villeneuve, a few people come and go from a battered-looking tailor’s shop. The ghosts of grocery stores past sulk on the other corners, long since converted into apartments, their storefronts sealed up with brick a shade darker than the rest of the building.