Good will and common sense combine to save store

The 5 Saisons store in Westmount could see many more Christmases

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The Gazette, Thursday, December 24, 2009

Here's a story with a happy ending for Christmas.

It's the story of a neighbourhood grocery store, the 5 Saisons at the corner of Greene and de Maisonneuve in Westmount, that was to have closed three weeks before Christmas and torn down to make way for a condo development. Instead, it has been given a new lease on life.

It's a story of common sense and Canadian compromise, for which everyone deserves credit, from the developer, Joseph Attias, to the store's owner, Metro, to say nothing of leadership from the local city hall and Peter Trent, newly re-installed as mayor of Westmount last month.

"I've had more positive comments on this than anything else I've ever been involved with as mayor," says Trent, who has presided over the restoration and expansion of the public library in Westmount, and successfully led the de-merger forces after the forced amalgamation with Montreal.

I don't wonder. The 5 Saisons is more, much more, than a grocery store. It generates about half the retail traffic on Greene Ave., and is a vital part a high-density neighbourhood that essentially begins at Westmount Square and runs west to the massive 4300 apartment block on de Maisonneuve.

"There's a reputation we have carried over the years," says Anita Atibagos, the head cashier, who has for many years been holding a whip hand over the younger staff. "People tell us when they go to a big store, nobody sees them. Here, we know them when they come in the door."

And for elderly customers in the nearby apartment towers who can't get out to shop, no problem. Anita and her colleagues will take your order, fill a shopping cart, and have it delivered. If you want a 12-pound turkey with all the trimmings, pre-cooked for Christmas dinner, just give your order to the guys behind the meat counter, and it'll be ready by closing time that night. This kind of service generates higher than average margins in the grocery business, notorious for its margins in the low single digits.

The impasse between the landlord, Attias, and the tenant, 5 Saisons parent Metro stores, would have led to its closing at the end of a five-year lease on Dec. 5. When Trent returned as mayor by acclamation in the Nov. 1 municipal election, he called the two sides in to see what the issues were and "how we can make sure the store survives."

Metro, says Trent, has been "very helpful throughout this whole thing." They've been involved in talks up to the level of CEO Eric Richer Lafleche and chairperson Pierre Lessard. And Attias, rather than having an unpopular closing pinned on him, gets a gold star, for being part of the solution rather than the cause of the problem.

Trent warns that while "it's not a done deal," the store will likely remain open for six months, while plans go forward to build on the air rights and renovate the 5 Saisons as part of the construction. The obvious solution is that in return for keeping the store and its popular corner terrasse, a magnet for retail traffic for nine months of the year, the area will be rezoned so the developer can add a couple of stories to his condo.

This is not rocket science, just simple common sense. And the relief in the neighbourhood, where there was a simmering citizens' revolt, is palpable. Trent says he has never received so many emails, phone calls, and letters on a single issue.

Trent was having a coffee yesterday at Nick's, up the street on Greene Ave., where the Alevisatos family and their successors have been serving breakfast and lunch since 1921. That's going on nearly five generations of high-school kids hanging out after school.

Across the street, at Tony's, which has been putting shoes on those school kids since 1937, Tony Fargnoli said the neighbourhood grocery "is important because it keeps traffic on the street. It creates a localness, a sense of a small town, of friendly recognizability."

Out in front of the 5 Saisons, the MacLeod family has been selling Christmas trees throughout December for the 25 years since the store has been open, with a portion of the profits always allocated to the Missing Children's Network.

The MacLeods export thousands of trees from their farm in Weedon in the Eastern Townships, and sell dozens every day in the run-up to Christmas.

On their second-last day yesterday, the patriarch of the clan, "Boots" MacLeod, said the family would have found another location, across or down the street, "but it wouldn't have been the same." Not every Christmas tree stand comes with a parking lot.

As she opened the store yesterday morning, Anita Atibagos was beaming.

"It's going to be a very special Christmas," she said. "Merry Christmas!"

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