The Buywell script and mascot, known as Jeeves, date from the 1920s. Other than the unexplained loss of a finger on each of Jeeves’ hands, the graphics changed little over the next 60 years. While the artist’s name is unknown, he is reputed to have attended the University of Chicago with Walt Disney. The sign donated to the Montreal Signs Project was displayed in the window between the two front doors of the flagship Buywell store at 1319–21 Ste-Catherine Street West. It was used to hide the lower half of the live trout and lobster tanks, so passersby on the sidewalk outside would see only the upper glass halves and their occupants. A complaint by an inspector from the Office de la Langue Française in the 1980s resulted in owner Michael Litvack obscuring the English word “since” with black marker. Litvack managed to convince the inspectors that Buywell was a surname and thus avoided similar censure.
Buywell fine foods was a downtown institution whose 85-year history mirrored the ups and downs of Montreal during this period. Founded as Stanford’s-Buywell in 1900, the original store at 1319–21 Ste. Catherine West (next door to Ogilvy’s) was the flagship in what is reputed to have been Montreal’s first chain of stores. Between 1900 and the 1930s, Stanford’s-Buywell grew to between 10–15 shops across the city. However, the lean years of the Depression had seen it reduced to two stores by the time it was purchased by the Litvack family in 1946.
The post-war boom brought both Montreal and Buywell roaring back to life. “We were shipping to Poland and all over the world,” says Michael Litvack, who grew up with the business and took over after his father’s death in 1977. “Nobody had anything after the war, and Buywell had everything.”
Buywell was soon posting the highest sales per square foot in Montreal. Buoying these sales was its reputation as the place to go if you couldn’t find what you were looking for elsewhere. “Sometimes you had to ask for it, because not everything was on the shelves, but we had it,” Michael says. “Back then Buywell was king.”
With its reputation as a leading purveyor of high-end ‘carriage trade’ goods, Buywell had a vested interest in being years behind the times and providing hands on, individual service long after self-serve had become the norm. “We did things the old-fashioned way, and that was a big part of our success,” says Michael.
Buywell’s quality goods attracted a clientele featuring many of Montreal’s leading political and cultural lights. Litvack recalls, among others:
- René Lévesque coming every Friday afternoon accompanied by his security detail for his “menthols, meat and red potatoes”
- Actor Donald Sutherland walking the aisles dressed “like Batman — all in black with a black cape”
- CanLit legend Hugh McLennan coming in dressed in “checkered jacket, plaid shirt and checkered pants”
- Literary icon, Mordecai Richler, shopping with a trademark cigarette dangling from his lips
- The cast of the Plouffe Family on their breaks from filming the latest episode of the now legendary series down the road at CBC studios.
Litvack’s father ran Buywell from 1946 until his death in 1977, and together with his brothers built up an impressive presence across the city. At its peak, the Litvacks owned 36 stores under various names, including three Buywells, and catering to an array of customers. The spiritual home, however, remained the original shop on Ste-Catherine with its colourful clientele and long-serving employees. “I used to say I wouldn’t sell it for the two most profitable stores in the Steinberg chain,” Michael said.
Michael took over Buywell’s operations in 1980, just as new provincial laws governing store operations were coming into effect. “Those laws, which allowed longer opening hours and expanded the number of stores that could sell things like beer, killed small businesses like Buywell,” Michael said. “Nowadays, everyone has everything – and the smaller ones live off the scraps.”
The Buywell store at 1319–21 Ste-Catherine West closed in 1985. Mr. Litvack has a small collection of photos on Flickr.