Through the window of Al-Boutik, the name of the store, I could see a large wooden table at the centre, a map of Africa next to the door, some shelves filled with bags of bulk foods and large swaths of colourful fabric draped across the ceiling. But unfortunately, the store was never open for business.
On Friday night, on my way to the grocery store, I saw that the light was on and walked in. I met Atigh Ould, the charismatic owner of both la Khaima, the restaurant next door, and Al-Boutik. Wearing a teal-coloured turbin and black rectangular glasses, Atigh welcomed me in and showed me around his store. He is from Mauritania, a country with a mixture of North African and West African cultures, and his favourite drink as a child was hibiscus flower tea, which can be served either hot or cold. The owner told me that this drink was in fact brewed and bottled on the premises and could be found in some 100 stores in the greater Montreal area. He invited me back the next day with my children to try the hibiscus freeze pops (see picture below) and invited us to his store's grand opening on Sunday, April 17.
I dropped by with my children a few days later, and the hibiscus freeze pops were a big hit, even with my 2-year-old. I learned from the store attendant that the African store was also going to be a lunch counter, and the big table at the centre of the room was so that people would sit together and talk to one another. I was intrigued by this unconventional approach and wondered if it would be successful. The store attendant also told me that Atigh's inspiration for building his store's business around an artisanal product made on the premises was his neighbour from down the street, Fairmount Bagel.
My husband also dropped by to meet Atigh, whom he found just as charismatic. Unable to pinpoint the source of his charm, I asked my husband what was it that made the store owner so intriguing. It was a no-brainer for my husband.
"The man is happy," he said, "and happiness attracts people."