I fell in love with Montreal on the page. Now, my ode to the city is in my local library

This First Person article is the experience of Sarah Gilbert, a writer in Montreal. For more information about CBC’s First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

Montreal was cold, grey and in the middle of a recession when I showed up in November 1990 looking for a job. My timing was questionable.

The bony branches of late fall clawed the sky. Barren ovals sat in the parks, waiting to become ice rinks. Night fell early. Every other storefront on Parc Avenue appeared to be à louer (for rent).

As a bookworm, when I learned they were hiring at a bookstore café, I applied. The manager warned me that serving muffins wouldn’t get me any closer to the books. 

I didn’t get close to anything, as it turned out. I wasn’t hired — not even at the café.

I filled out applications and blanketed the city with my CV. As I worried about my student loans, I took stock of my life.

I had a degree in journalism but was too shy to talk to people. I was broke with zero income. I had no obvious prospects and no clear idea of what to do next.

The one thing I did have was a literary address. My friend Carol, whom I’d met at university in Ottawa, had moved to Montreal first. At my request, she’d saved me a room on the top floor of a triplex in what is now known as Mile End.

Our landlord kept the radiators turned up high. Never again have I enjoyed such a well-heated apartment. 

But what really warmed my heart was living on St-Urbain — a street that had a novel named after it. 

An old photo of two women pictured outdoors on a balcony.
Sarah Gilbert, right, pictured with her university friend and roommate Carol Wood on the balcony of their third-floor triplex unit on St-Urbain Street in Mile End. (Submitted by Sarah Gilbert)

Growing up in Winnipeg, reading Mordecai Richler’s The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz — which is set in Montreal — showed me that Canadian literature could be funny. The eponymous St-Urbain’s Horseman, also by Richler, wasn’t as much of a page-turner as Duddy, but it didn’t matter. I was on the street. 

I had a chronic novel-reading habit, but no books. My need to read was urgent so before I even possessed any local ID, I applied for a library card. I brought my passport and, as proof of address, the first piece of mail sent to me on, yes, I live there: St-Urbain. 

I was briefly a terrible waitress. I jumped at the chance to write for a South Shore paper where they spelled my name wrong and paid me by the column inch. 

Little by little, I got better jobs. The fortunes of St-Laurent Boulevard went up and down. My part of town became known as Mile End – a magnet for freelancers with artistic or literary pretensions. People like me. We changed the neighbourhood. Small family businesses disappeared. Often chains or upscale boutiques and eateries took over their old spots. I switched from media work to teaching.

By the time I needed a new library card, the Mile End library had moved to a new building. Once my daughter was born, its location in a former church felt appropriate. We went religiously.

A toddler standing on a small pile of books on the floor.
Gilbert’s daughter, Amelia Miquet, pictured as a one-year-old. (Submitted by Sarah Gilbert)

The kids’ section in the brightly lit basement was our second home. Warm on slushy days and air-conditioned during heat waves. First, my daughter pulled board books out of the bins. Next, the shelves of picture books were our mainstay. Then we spent hours on the library’s cache of puzzles and games involving frogs or monkeys. There were DVDs and comics and spinning racks of paperbacks.

At the round white tables, I graded papers while my daughter checked out her selections with her own library card. We hauled books home by the bag.

The staff knew us. “Don’t forget to sign up,” they’d say, knowing we wouldn’t want to miss a puppet show, play or special demonstration of tunnel-running hamsters and ferrets.

These days, my daughter is a teenager, but I still go to the library often. I pick up books I’ve ordered, work and browse new titles. Last spring, during the ice storm power outage, I joined crowds of people warming up while charging their phones and taking advantage of the Wi-Fi.

In 2015, the city renamed our church of reading la Bibliothèque Mordecai Richler. Sometimes I think of how I came to Montreal as a young person, seduced, like so many others, by the St-Urbain I’d met on the page. 

Now friends report sightings of my writing. People are reading my stories on the Metro or at a café. It’s hard to imagine anything better. Except maybe the news that my book, Our Lady of Mile End, has become part of the collection at la Bibliothèque Mordecai Richler. 

It’s as if finally, all these years later, I’ve arrived.

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