Just north of the Jean-Talon market, St. Hubert’s shopping mall houses a small textile district. The mingling of cultures that make up the neighbourhood is mirrored by the wide array of fabrics available, ranging from gingham to batik. A closer investigation of the shops – and conversations with their owners – reveals a small community of distinct backgrounds and a mutual feeling of pride in the businesses they have created.
Shop fronts feature lavish drapery, models of upholstered furniture, and sleepy-looking mannequins sporting hand-sewn garments. Competition is lively, with many owners seeking to create a niche for their business by specializing in textiles that serve a particular function, such as home furnishing. Others offer a wider selection, and the resulting potpourri of colours, textures, and designs becomes the material for costumes and curtains alike. A diverse and loyal clientele attests to their success – some shop owners have been doing business in the area since as early as the 1940s.
The green glass awning which covers part of the street, running from Bellechasse up to Jean-Talon, is the result of an ambitious dream city planners had at one time to turn St. Hubert into the “world’s biggest shopping centre.” The St. Hubert covered shopping centre was more than just another money-spinning development scheme and neighbourhood overhaul; it was an effort to protect the local merchants of this area from the competition of larger commercial malls which were beginning to appear across North American cities. This would be achieved by both the reputation garnered by the sheer magnitude of the mall, as well as the year-round guarantee of a comfortable shopping experience despite Montreal’s harsh winters. Their vision didn’t materialize as they had expected. By the time the construction was unveiled in 1984 – more than 30 years after its initial conception – what was to be an array of 750 shops had decreased to less than half that number. The glass roof, intended to enclose the entire mall, had been reduced to the partial covering which extends just across the sidewalk on either side of the street today.
“Personally, I think it took out the energy from the street,” laments Danny Ohayon, a shop owner who has been in the neighbourhood for 30 years. “St. Hubert used to look a bit like Ste. Catherine street.” With the awning, he observes, “you don’t see the tops of the buildings and you don’t see really the names of the stores.” The awning’s severe presence damages the vibrancy of an otherwise aesthetically and culturally colourful neighbourhood. For Ohayon, this is not a main concern. His shop, Draperies Georgette, sits just outside the covered portion of the mall. Still, he wishes that they would remove the structure, if only to restore a fluency to the appearance of the street.
The awning is not the only problem facing the merchants of St. Hubert. While it is apparent that there is still a market for textiles in Montreal, many proprietors in the mall have experienced a recent decline in their business. For Josef, of Tissus Saint Hubert, “business depends on the season,” but it wasn’t always so. When he came 20 years ago, business was good, but starting about three years ago, the number of customers started to decrease. His explanation is simple – “everyone is broke.” Ohayon has a more positive attitude: he believes the dwindling customers are due to the fact that “a lot of people that used to live around here moved out in nice suburbs.” Either way, the bulk of the clientele today are students from fashion or art schools, theatre companies, and people looking to decorate their homes.
Despite the challenges, certain businesses have been able to carve a niche for themselves. Draperies Georgette is one of a dozen or so textile stores which have opened just north of Jean-Talon, where the mall continues, but is no longer shaded by the austere glass awning. This small enclave of shops is a vestige of the old St. Hubert commercial street that predates the construction of the plaza, and goes back to the turn of the century. Shops began to spring up along St. Hubert as a result of a growing population and continued to expand throughout the years, regardless of the various development plans that were brewing. This part of the mall maintains the colourful painted signs and different types of architecture which used to characterize the entire street.
Store owners and workers hail from all parts of the world and often have backgrounds unrelated to their occupation today. Ohayon, who came from Morocco as a teenager, attended McGill’s architecture program for two years, during which time he also studied art history. “I had two years left” he says, thinking fondly of his university days, “in the 70s, it was easy to make money in business, so I dropped off and went to business.” Ohayon would later join his wife, who is also from Morocco, in opening Draperies Georgette – naming the store after her mother.
Lebanese people own the majority of the businesses in the textile district. Next door to Draperies Georgette, Ultratext specializes in sequins, tassels, and other accessories which dangle enticingly from ceiling rafters. Their clients include the Montreal-based circus troupe Cirque du Soleil and the Montreal Casino. One worker of many years was previously employed in the food industry. He came to Canada after a brief stint in the U.S. because working papers here were far easier to get. At its height, the mall contained more stores and business had been booming, drawing many immigrants to the area. Latif Reckallah, the owner of the store, says he has seen many Lebanese people go into textiles after failing to find jobs elsewhere: “We look for other jobs, but we see Lebanese here.”
Antoine, of Textile Riatex, is also from Lebanon. With an interest in business – he had been a hair dresser back home – he jumped at the opportunity to assist his brother-in-law, who was working in the textile industry, in opening up a store in Montreal. “I was here in ’89 and most of the Lebanese came at that time,” he says, citing a civil war which began in the ’70s as the reason many people were forced to emigrate. He guesses that many Lebanese people go into this business because “they like to work for their own.”
While people like Antoine, Josef, and the others take an obvious pride in their work, they can seem like members of a dying breed. Their personal and friendly relationships with their customers and each other are a far cry from the big chain clothing stores on Ste. Catherine. One might think that because of the wide availability of prefabricated clothes and household items today, a textile district like the St. Hubert mall would be unable to survive. However, because of the cultural forces holding the neighbourhood together, and the reputation the stores have collectively built as the best source of materials for people working creatively with textiles in Montreal, the mall has developed into a unique and enduring phenomenon.