Culture & Conversation

Maisy on Queen West

Maisonneuve magazine turns ten this year and is fêting the decennial in style. Montreal’s eclectic cultural and literary mag took the party down the 401 last week for a packed event held in Toronto’s artsy west end. And if editor-in-chief Drew Nelles’ ambitions are any sign, the magazine’s new swagger is but a hint of things to come.

The Toronto launch of Maisonneuve’s special anniversary issue drew a mostly youthful crowd at The Ossington bar, just off trendy West Queen West. A good swath of the local publishing and blog scene was on hand for the event, hipster creative types ranging from loyal readers, seasoned editors and friends, to wide-eyed freelancers and a promising contingent of the curiously inquisitive. All in all, around 70 people turned out for the intimate meet-and-greet in a space vaguely reminiscent of Montreal’s Bily Kun (minus the ostrich heads).

The decision to hit Toronto first was a simple question of timing and logistics, says Nelles. (For the same reason, earlier plans for a Vancouver party didn’t work out). He cautions against reading too much into the choice, and is quick to point out that Montreal is next up with a launch planned May 3rd. To hear Nelles talk about the future, it’s clear the two-town launch is part of a renewed drive towards expansion, and a sure sign of Maisonneuve’s heightened aspirations.

A McGill graduate and one-time McGill Daily editor, Nelles, who came on board as editor three years ago, is out to change the image of the magazine, which he feels has been unfairly pigeonholed as a Montreal-centric literary mag. He has overseen thoughtful and aggressive coverage of social and political issues in a bid to raise the magazine’s national profile and relevance, and is reaching out to audiences across the country with a diversified array of stories and perspectives.

All of which must taste like icing on the birthday cake. Maisy – as insiders call the mag – could scarcely have entertained such a vision a few years back. Hit with hard times, founding editor Derek Webster was forced to downscale in the fall of 2006 from a bimonthly to a quarterly. Subsequently, he left to work at Reader’s Digest. After a period of financial turbulence, the situation has stabilized, says Nelles, and the magazine can finally allow itself to dream a little bigger.

But will Maisonneuve’s more robust national orientation compromise the magazine’s distinctly Montreal flare? On the contrary, he says, the Montreal flavour of the publication is a central part of its appeal, particularly in Toronto.

Nelles just might be on to something. Since it launched in the spring of 2002, Maisonneuve has found a receptive audience in Toronto: the city is home to the magazine’s largest chunk of subscribers.

Truth be told: in the coffeehouses and on the streetcars of Canada’s Anglo metropolis, Montreal is the city on everyone’s lips. It’s a striking observation for a newly-arrived Montrealer to the city (like myself), but one that speaks to a wider dynamic in this Canadian tale of two cities. Nelles, an Ontarian who has made Montreal his home for ten years, knows it better than most. Montreal, he says, “exists in (the Canadian) imagination as a city of a certain character.” No question, therefore, of selling out Maisonneuve’s hometown in its quest for a national embrace.

It’s a delicate balancing act, says the young editor, but one with trailblazing forebears. His ideal is The New Yorker, “the best magazine in the world.” The template for a great publication proudly steeped in its local landscape, it is also open to the nation, and the world.

The magazine of ‘eclectic curiosity’, Maisonneuve was named for Montreal’s French founder and still “exudes the sentiments and ethos of the city,” says Nelles. It would cease to be itself if it were published anywhere else.

If the reception last week at The Ossington is any indication, Toronto clearly likes our Maisy just the way she is.

Don’t miss Maisonneuve’s May 3rd Montreal launch at Eastern Bloc, 7240 Clark, near Jean Talon. Admission $5.

Shawn Katz is a Montreal writer currently studying and writing for Rover in Toronto.

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