Frites Lesage, Le 281, Fairmount Bagel, the Guérin bookstore and even La Boîte Noire!
If 13 signs illuminate the entrance to the new Montreal Memories Center (MEM) 24 hours a day, it is largely thanks to Matt Soar.
The day before the inauguration of the museum dedicated to Montreal, the Concordia University professor gave us a guided tour through the collection of signs that adorn the walls of two buildings on the magnificent Loyola campus, rue Sherbrooke Ouest.
About fifteen years ago, Matt Soar founded the Montreal Sign Project with archivist Nancy Marrelli. With the help of students, they recovered and restored storefronts that are part of the history and soul of Montreal – including the famous Warshaw store on Saint-Laurent Boulevard and the famous Bens restaurant, closed in 2006.
Catherine Charlebois, section head and chief curator of the MEM (formerly the Montreal History Centre), asked Matt Soar for a big favor, namely that a dozen brands move from Loyola to the Quartier des Spectacles to brighten up everything in splendor the entrance hall of the new museum.
“Catherine and I share the idea that culture can be ordinary,” says Matt Soar.
After all, what would the gateway to downtown from the Bonaventure Expressway be without the illuminated red letters of Farine Five Roses? The Smuckers company also gave in to popular pressure and kept the famous neon when it acquired the rights to the brand. She even invested hundreds of thousands of dollars to get it in good condition. It is not a simple sign, but an emblem of Montreal’s industrial heritage.
“I was the first to learn about Montreal from the brands,” says Matt Soar. The American native notably got a crash course in Law 101 when he saw that paint hid “since” replaced by “since” on certain facades.
But how did the signs come to Matt Soar? “I was interested in the concept of hypercommercialism,” says the adopted Quebecer who left the state of Massachusetts 20 years ago to join the faculty at Concordia. In 2007, he organized a conference called Logo Cites which featured a documentary by Gary Hustwit on the Helvetica typeface. There were also three old signs borrowed for the occasion: those of the Warshaw (preserved by the Friends of Boulevard Saint-Laurent), the Monkland Tavern (in English) and the Main Simcha fruit shop (today in the offices of the Pop Montréal festival).
The interest was so great that Matt Soar suggested that Concordia University make it a collection project. It was without knowing that the most rewarding aspect would be revealed through the stories and memories that people tell him. La Presse photographer Patrick Sanfaçon quickly plunged back into his childhood memories when he saw the sign of Mars, a dark and somewhat dirty store on Rue Sainte-Catherine where they sold comic books and records.
For us, it was extremely nostalgic to see the signs of the Steinberg grocery store and even 281 again! And what about the letters from the Rapido, a restaurant where we have so many times ended up at the end of the evening over poutine with friends in another life.
Matt Soar and his team continue to collect signs (we even got to visit the warehouse where they are accumulated). The word gets around, but like on Marketplace, it’s often pick up now or never. It also happens that families make donations to him. In 2020, members of the Steinbergs gave him a sign from their famous grocery chain, which closed in 1992.
A lot of brands were heading for trash even though they are so rich in history, Matt Soar points out. The history of Montreal, but also of families, immigrants and lifestyle habits that no longer exist (like going to rent a film at La Boîte Noire!).
“Thousands of people frequented these businesses and restaurants, it was their daily life,” argues Matt Soar.