Plateau’d : Segal’s Grocery

Segal's Grocery. St. Laurent. Photo Jane O'Faherty Segal's Grocery. St. Laurent. Photo Jane O'Faherty

Before I continue with this column, I feel I should try to explain its title. When I first moved to Plateau-Mont-Royal, I was struck by a characteristic I share with many young people in the area.

Some worked part-time jobs as bartenders, busboys and nannies while funding a master’s degree or creative endeavour. Others listened to angry consumers in call centres. Another portion spent their time in tech. Despite their varied careers, most of them came to Montreal to “work things out”.

This isn’t meant to sound insulting – I’m also eagerly trying to “work things out”. However, I also feel my life has had a pleasant stillness since arriving. Yes, my professional progress is somewhat flat, and I’m not sure what I’m doing with my life. But at least the rent isn’t rising.

The best word I could come up with to describe this Montreal-centric sensation was ‘Plateau’d’.

Shopping in Segal’s is a pretty evident symptom of being Plateau’d. A stalwart of the neighbourhood, this little grocery store on Saint Laurent is a weekly destination for most of the people living here.

Before I visited Segal’s, I would treat my grocery shopping like a trip to an art gallery. I would stroll around, as if time didn’t exist. There would be fresh vegetables to be examined. There would be expensive foodstuffs to be thrown into baskets on a whim, before being sheepishly put back on the shelf. Perhaps this shameless browsing would be tolerated in the likes of Provigo or PA. But Segal’s will not afford you that luxury.

Shopping in Segal’s requires a plan – a clear, military strategy. You have a list. You get your things. You get out. There are three cashes. There are three lines.

You walk down the narrow grocery aisle, squeezing past students, couples and the occasional stroller. You trawl through the produce section with a precision that may be lacking in other areas of your life. You dodge the dried fish lingering at the back of the shop, get whatever else you need, join a queue and leave.

You pay a pittance for your groceries. Obviously, you’re not going to splash out for the ‘Segal’s Experience’.

My first few trips to Segal’s were a mess. I was unprepared, and going to Segal’s unprepared is simply being prepared to fail. It was one of the few culture shocks I had after arriving in Canada.

My housemates and friends waxed lyrical about Segal’s. I was not convinced.

The fact that Segal’s mildly annoyed me for some time is a little ironic. I’m Irish – a citizen of the country that introduced low-budget air travel to the world.

While still living in Europe, I flew with Ryanair, a no-frills Irish airline that continues to both enchant and disgust visiting North Americans. Ryanair’s attitude to customer service has been laissez faire at best, yet most Europeans have a soft spot for it. Segal’s isn’t all that different.

Indeed, this little Montreal gem – a few steps away from both Schwartz’s and Cinema L’Amour – started to grow on me.

Hearing the dulcet tones of early evening CBC radio over the speakers was comforting in a strange way I couldn’t comprehend.

After a few visits, I realised that storing olives and pickles in bins isn’t all that disgusting. It’s a strange stroke of genius.

Let’s not forget its celebrity credentials. When I refer to these credentials, I mean that Mac DeMarco mopped floors and stocked shelves in Segal’s before releasing Salad Days.

This fact almost humbles me whenever I’m rummaging for unbruised bell peppers or fresh spinach leaves.

I often wonder if Leonard Cohen ever popped in for a bag of nachos, or if the girl choosing between almond or rice milk at the back will have a Pitchfork cover story one day.

The girls at the cash have a wonderful serenity that seems to contradict the very essence of the store. They also have an enviable, seemingly effortless hobo chic that I one day hope to emulate.

Above all else, there is something comforting in the fact that Segal’s has not, and will not, change. Like all cities, Montreal seems to be in the throws of renewal, gentrification and cultural shifts – for better or worse.

In the midst of all this upheaval, Segal’s never alters. You might be dealing with the trials of failed relationships and unsteady employment, but at least you can always afford your groceries.

So when you’re waiting in line with a handful of vegetables, hummus and a frighteningly affordable tub of veganaise, you’re reassured that, maybe (just maybe), all is well.