In the summer before my third year of university, the nearest dépanneur to my apartment was Super Marché Brito. During late June, my roommates and I approached the owner, Tim Maherpour, asking him if his store was going to be open on Canada Day (in case we needed to get more beer and charcoal for our grill).
“Ma’am, we are open seven days a week, on Christmas, on all holidays, no matter what,” Tim Maherpour said to us.
Afterwards, my roommates and I would joke that if there was an apocalypse, Super Marché Brito would still be open as the “last dep on earth.”
Fast forward through a year punctuated by personal dramas and capped off with a pandemic, by the end of my lease in April, it was chilly, everyone was wearing masks, and I felt lonely in the city. But, I could still pop into Super Marché Brito to buy myself Red Bulls. It truly seemed like the last dep on earth.
I’ve lived in three different apartments during my time in Montreal, each one bringing with it a new “nearby dep.” Super Marché Brito, if it was not already obvious, is my favourite one. It might be best known to McGill students as "The Café Campus Dep" Beyond being my dep, it was shared with everyone on my block, which was, at the time I lived on it, a jarring mix of students, established Francophone families, and AirBnB sex tourists.
Super Marché Brito stands out because of the sheer size and breadth of their selection of products. But in many ways, it’s the same as any other dépanneur you’d find in Montreal: It serves beer until 11 p.m., and you can find basically any snack you’d crave. It feels familiar and personal, but very universal; stepping inside, Super Marché Brito could be located on any street in the city. The fluorescent lighting, stacks of beer cases, and wall of cigarettes are pure modern Montreal iconography.
Super Marché Brito is operated by Tim, along with his son, Ramtin. Prior, Tim owned the 25 Hour Dépanneur on Avenue du Parc—an infamous staple in the Milton Parc community. He parted ways with his old business partner to take up Super Marché Brito in 2005. Maherpour prides himself on his meticulously clean store and vast inventory that includes a deli counter and fresh produce—rarities amongst standard issue dépanneurs.
“We know we have a lot of students here, and we know we have many single people,” Maherpour said. “We try to make something very convenient for those who don’t need to buy [a lot] of groceries. We try to have good prices and be convenient [....] We are not a grocery and we are not a Super C, we are something between.”
This in-betweenness is exactly Super Marché Brito’s strength. Its exterior gives no indication to the tidy rows of citrus fruits that greet you when you enter, nor the clean shelves of wine bottles near the checkout counter. For me, it was the perfect place to stop by on my way home, avoiding the clinical pressures of a grocery store. It was perfect because it was innocuous and comfortable, a place you could go to late at night to buy something insignificant and stupid when you were high, like a single reheated Jamaican patty and an Orangina.
Dépanneurs owe their advent to their ability to stay past regular business hours. According to Judith Lussier’s Sacré Dépanneur, it was really the passing of Bill 24 in 1969, which permitted small businesses to operate past 6 p.m. with reduced staff, that birthed the dépanneur as we know it today.
Before there were dépanneurs, there were épiceries and tobacco-stands (or tabagies)—small businesses that served prepared foods, but also sold alcohol and cigarettes, amongst other things. When modern chain grocery stores began to emerge in postwar middle-class neighborhoods, and populations began to vacate urban centres for the suburbs—a demographic trend that persists today—many small grocers in the downtown area faced new challenges in attracting clientele.
“The law introduced in the 1970s was one of the ways in which the government was trying to [...] provide some sort of lifeline [to] these smaller businesses and the commercial streets and neighborhoods which relied on them to survive and compete,” Joanne Burgess, professor of History at l'Université de Québec à Montréal (UQÀM) said. “Obviously they weren’t competing with [big companies like] Steinberg’s, but they could offer certain services beyond the hours when these other commerce were open by being able to sell beer and wine more liberally than other kinds of businesses.”
According to Lussier, the first dépanneur in Quebec was Le Dépanneur Saint-Zotique, which was previously an épicerie, and is now called Marché 7 Jours, located on Saint-Zotique and 1ère Avenue. The owner, Paul-Emile Maheu, felt it fit to rename his épicerie to a ‘dépanneur’ to better suit what he saw as its function, given that it could now focus on selling liquor and snacks at later hours. 'Dépanner' translates roughly to fixing or troubleshooting something, so before, a ‘dépanneur’ would be used to describe a place to get your car or machinery fixed but it is now used to describe these little stores which too can help with a quick fix. The word 'dépanneur' was even adopted by the Office québécois de la langue française (OQLF) in March 1983, replacing the Anglophone “convenience store.” This iteration of the corner stores—replete with Loto Quebec scratch cards and Boreale—makes the dépanneur unique to Quebec, a sibling to New York’s bodegas or Japan's konbinis.
Before it existed as Super Marché Brito, the space that it occupies— 67 Rue Prince Arthur East —was home to many. According to fire insurance maps from 1961 to 1976, it was an épicerie. It is unclear exactly when it became a dépanneur: Tim claims that a Greek family had operated the depanneur under the name Dépanneur Extra & Brito for roughly two decades before him, and prior to that, it was allegedly a butcher's shop. No public records can detail the exact owners and names of the businesses beforehand, but regardless of the specifics, it’s clear that the space at 67 Prince Arthur has played a continuous role in the Plateau’s urban food system. Small local businesses can uniquely thrive in a neighbourhood like the Plateau, creatively finding ways to respond to the area’s needs.
“How do you make a living in the city, right?” Burgess said. “There’s all these different ways for people, for women, for immigrants, for people who are marginal in terms of the urban economy, [to find] ways to fit in, meet certain needs, but also make their own living.”
The lower Plateau, where Super Marché Brito calls home, has evolved since the store served as a butcher’s store to a primarily Jewish working-class population, having seen increases in rent due to gentrification. Even in the past two decades that the Maherpour’s have overseen Super Marché Brito, there’s been a rapid change in demographics due to the expanding student populations and the 2008 recession. They recall a younger Rue Prince Arthur, one that bustled with nightlife and was a major artery of the lower Plateau.
“It was, like, the best place in Montreal by far,” Ramtin Maherpour said. “People would come into the city to actually go out. Saturday nights, weekends, and you could not walk on Prince Arthur. It was almost impossible. It was hell. It was so packed that you couldn't move.”
Now, many shops have since closed, and the downtown core is emptier than it was before. Students who come and go, only living in the Plateau for a year or two, are often not privy to the bigger picture of a neighbourhood’s evolution, as they only pay attention to their surroundings in the present and do not consider the histories of the spaces that they inhabit.
“McGill’s gotten bigger and bigger, [as well as] UQÀM,” Tim Maherpour said. “They’re selling these apartments to the students, so the neighborhood has changed. They’re selling to AirBnBs. Since 2011 when all the restaurants closed, [the municipal government is] changing it a little bit and making it commercial, so we’re getting more people working downtown. It’s kind of a mix of students and people working downtown.”
Downtown Montreal’s shift away from a residential area towards a commercial zone is precarious: Parking zoning makes it difficult for suburbanites to transit in, and this, coupled with expensive rent, dissuades many business owners from setting up their shops in the area. In the wake of the 2008 economic recession, Super Marché Brito, much like other similarly run family businesses, struggled to remain afloat. Ultimately being a family business has given them an edge, Ramtin believes, which allows Super Marché Brito to endure times of duresse.
“In those hard times we could have basically just [let go] all our employees, but we decided to [reduce] our salary a bit and our hours so that they can still have a job because they all have problems too,” Ramtin Maherpour said.
Super Marché Brito has remained, first and foremost, a family business. Ramtin, now in his late twenties, began working at the store alongside his sister and cousin. Maherpour’s wife Marie, now retired, started the deli counter, packaging salads and sandwiches to go. The Maherpours like to say their employees have become an extension of their family, a fact that I can attest to, having encountered familiar faces behind the counter on days when the family was not in the store. They recognize that as a family business, many customers are responsive to having a reliable store staffed by people that they can come to know, and see it as one of their strengths.
“I see so many businesses closing, and I see [that] I’m still working, so this to me, the people in the neighborhood, they like me, they like us,” Tim Maherpour said. “My business, they’re happy with whatever we serve them [....] Otherwise, we wouldn’t be here for 16 years.”
In those 16 years, Tim thinks that the COVID-19 pandemic was the most difficult challenge that he has encountered, more so than the economic recession.
“It was hard at the start, because all my employees are scared to work,” Tim Maherpour said. “So me and my son had to put in more hours and stay here. It was very tough because I didn’t want to put [my employees] at risk. If they wanted to stay [and work], they could stay. If they wanted to leave, they could leave. But I can’t close [the store] because I have rent to pay.”
The challenges posed by the pandemic have forced many small businesses to close. Most dépanneurs, however, have remained open. They have a resilient business model—often staffed by family members, they require little capital to start-up and produce a steady stream of income. Furthermore, dépanneurs were in a unique position during the beginning of the pandemic, being granted permission by the government to operate as essential services.
As an integral part of the Plateau’s fabric, Super Marché Brito, along with the other dépanneurs in the neighborhood, acts as an unequivocal equalizer: Pandemic or not, people of all social classes or backgrounds can find themselves at a dépanneur. Everyone’s going to run out of toilet paper in the middle of the night, at some point.
”You really see from all the spectrum of the clients possible,” Ramtin Maherpour said. “That's something that's cool because it opens my mind, [and] it makes me see the public completely different. If you've only been to school, or you've only worked in a certain area, you kind of always are limited to the people you see. But in this situation, I can see really everyone, les gens du peuples, but I [also] see the really rich ones.”
I’ve since moved from the block that I shared with Super Marché Brito. I still often find myself there, picking up chips on my way to sit in the park—the dépanneur I live nearby now is of markedly worse quality, with a disappointingly limited beer and wine selection. They don’t sell dried lentils, either. There will come a time when I won’t be able to take the extra 10 minute walk to Super Marché Brito, and maybe there will be a time when it won’t be there at all. But there will always be a nearby dep, and a dep at the end of the world, for you.
Photos by Marie Saadeh. Design by Chloe Rodriguez.