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In spare moments between customers this pizza shop owner writes novels. His latest explores the 1998-99 conflict in Kosovo

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Perparim Kapllani opens his Toronto pizza shop every morning at 11 a.m. and closes it every night 12 hours later. He’s been doing it seven days a week for the past decade, not counting brief vacations.

There’s nothing unusual about immigrants working hard. But Kapllani, who arrived from Albania in 2000, juggles a second job at the same time in a rather striking way.

Between serving customers and making pizzas, Kapllani squeezes into a backroom office no bigger than a broom closet. He sits at a tiny desk and shifts his focus “like a rabbit” between two screens: on one he can see when the next customer walks in; on the other, connected to his desktop, he writes the next sentence of his novel.

“There are little moments when I can write something,” Kapllani says.

Since opening his west-end shop in 2008, Kapllani has stolen enough little moments to write a play, a collection of short stories, and two novels. His most recent novel, The Thin Line, was published in November by Mawenzi House.

Were it not for the pizza shop, “I might publish a novel every year,” Kapllani quips.

He comes from the Balkans, a peninsula in southeastern Europe that has been carved up by empires and regional powers for centuries. The 1998-99 conflict between Serbia, a largely Orthodox Christian state, and Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian Muslims is the backdrop to Kapllani’s latest work.

It’s based on a true story about a 10-year-old boy in Kosovo, the sole survivor of a massacre by Serb forces in April 1999. The boy watched as 20 ethnic Albanian women and children were shot to death in a house, including his mother and three sisters.

The boy was wounded, but survived by playing dead. He eventually came to Canada with his father as a refugee.

His horrific story is well documented — he testified years later at a United Nations tribunal on war crimes in the former Yugoslavia. But Kapllani asked that the survivor’s name not be published because his novel fictionalizes his experiences.

“It’s a story of very slow healing,” Kapllani, 52, says of his novel’s main character.

“The ghosts of the loved ones, of the dead, they follow you — they chase you. What are you going to do?”

Kapllani’s book was edited by M.G. Vassanji, a novelist who twice won the Giller Prize. Vassanji says it reflects the traumatic experiences refugees bring to Canada, and the Canadian values that help most overcome feelings of revenge.

“You cannot forget the fact that you lost your mother and three sisters right in front of you, but you can put the past to rest and you can start again,” Vassanji says in an interview.

“It says something about the quality of our society that you can do that,” he adds, “that you’re allowed to be who you are and are given the space to grow and to find yourself.”

Kapllani wrote about the boy when he worked as a journalist with Albania’s biggest newspaper, Shekulli, in the capital Tirana. The boy was one of an estimated 900,000 Kosovar Albanians expelled by Serb forces, and Kapllani met him while he recovered in a military hospital. He identified with the boy’s pain.

Kapllani grew up in Elbasan, a city in the middle of what at the time was communist Albania. When he was 10, his father was found dead in the street with a fractured skull, after years of struggling with mental health issues. The circumstances of his death were never determined.

The municipality found Kapllani’s family a room in a building known as “the fish palace,” because of the fish shop on the ground floor.

“There were 28 families living there and five washrooms outside the building,” he recalls. “It was a nightmare.”

With the help of a locally connected man, Kapllani entered a military school at the age of 14 and graduated as an artillery officer. He became a journalist with the department of defence and, when the communist system collapsed in the early 1990s, got a job at Shekulli.

He covered crime, and once went into hiding after exposing local mobsters laundering money in construction projects. He also witnessed the terrifying brutality of the Kosovo war.

“To myself I said, ‘How can this happen in the middle of Europe, just because they have a different religion or nationality?’” Kapllani says.

He came to Canada as a landed immigrant with his wife and son. His wife is a chemical engineer who works for a company that produces medication; his son graduated last year from the University of Toronto with a degree in industrial engineering.

After working in pizza shops for years, and getting entrepreneurial tips from the non-profit Toronto Business Development Centre, Kapllani opened his own place on Lansdowne Ave. near Dundas St. W.

A small man with an easy smile, he says he learned quickly that in Canada, ancient ethnic grievances find no foothold.

“My son, his best friends are Serbians; two Serbian brothers. They came to my house one day — a little boy with a (T-shirt) that said, ‘Proud to be Serbian.’ I said, ‘What! Who is this guy?’” Kapllani says, laughing.

“Canada is a miniworld,” he adds. “When everybody comes from somewhere else, diversity becomes the culture, not ethnic or religious nationalism.”

He’ll continue to explore those themes in literature, right after he wipes the flour from his hands and serves up his “deluxe” pizza, with pepperoni, mushrooms and green peppers.

Sandro Contenta is a reporter and feature writer based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @scontenta

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Anglais

‘Business as usual’ for Dorel Industries after terminating go-private deal

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MONTREAL — Dorel Industries Inc. says it will continue to pursue its business strategy going forward after terminating an agreement to go private after discussions with shareholders.

« Moving ahead. Business as usual, » a spokesman for the company said in an email on Monday.

A group led by Cerberus Capital Management had previously agreed to buy outstanding shares of Dorel for $16 apiece, except for shares owned by the family that controls the company’s multiple-voting shares.

But Dorel chief executive Martin Schwartz said the Montreal-based maker of car seats, strollers, bicycles and home furniture pulled the plug on a deal on the eve of Tuesday’s special meeting after reviewing votes from shareholders.

“Independent shareholders have clearly expressed their confidence in Dorel’s future and the greater potential for Dorel as a public entity, » he said in a news release.

Dorel’s board of directors, with Martin Schwartz, Alan Schwartz, Jeffrey Schwartz and Jeff Segel recused, unanimously approved the deal’s termination upon the recommendation of a special committee.

The transaction required approval by two-thirds of the votes cast, and more than 50 per cent of the votes cast by non-family shareholders.

Schwartz said enhancing shareholder value remains a top priority while it stays focused on growing its brands, which include Schwinn and Mongoose bikes, Safety 1st-brand car seats and DHP Furniture.

Dorel said the move to end the go-private deal was mutual, despite the funds’ increased purchase price offer earlier this year.

It said there is no break fee applicable in this case.

Montreal-based investment firm Letko, Brosseau & Associates Inc. and San Diego’s Brandes Investment Partners LP, which together control more than 19 per cent of Dorel’s outstanding class B subordinate shares voiced their opposition to the amended offer, which was increased from the initial Nov. 2 offer of $14.50 per share.

« We believe that several minority shareholders shared our opinion, » said Letko vice-president Stephane Lebrun, during a phone interview.

« We are confident of the long-term potential of the company and we have confidence in the managers in place.”

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Anglais

Pandemic funds helping Montreal businesses build for a better tomorrow

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Many entrepreneurs have had to tap into government loans during the pandemic, at first just to survive, but now some are using the money to better prepare their businesses for the post-COVID future.

One of those businesses is Del Friscos, a popular family restaurant in Dollard-des-Ormeaux that, like many Montreal-area restaurants, has had to adapt from a sit-down establishment to one that takes orders online for takeout or delivery.

“It was hard going from totally in-house seating,” said Del Friscos co-owner Terry Konstas. “We didn’t have an in-house delivery system, which we quickly added. There were so many of our employees that were laid off that wanted to work so we adapted to a delivery system and added platforms like Uber and DoorDash.”

Helping them through the transition were emergency grants and low-interest loans from the federal and provincial governments, some of which are directly administered by PME MTL, a non-profit business-development organization established to assist the island’s small and medium-sized businesses.

Konstas said he had never even heard of PME MTL until a customer told him about them and when he got in touch, he discovered there were many government programs available to help his business get through the downturn and build for the future. “They’ve been very helpful right from day one,” said Konstas.

“We used some of the funds to catch up on our suppliers and our rents, the part that wasn’t covered from the federal side, and we used some of it for our new virtual concepts,” he said, referring to a virtual kitchen model which the restaurant has since adopted.

The virtual kitchen lets them create completely different menu items from the casual American Italian dishes that Del Friscos is known for and market them under different restaurant brand names. Under the Prasinó Soup & Salad banner, they sell healthy Greek options and their Stallone’s Sub Shop brand offers hearty sandwiches, yet the food from both is created in the same Del Friscos kitchen.

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Downtown Montreal office, retail vacancies continue to rise

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Some of downtown Montreal’s key economic indicators are heading in the wrong direction.

Office and retail vacancies in the city’s central core continued to climb in the fourth quarter of 2020, according to a quarterly report released Thursday by the Urban Development Institute of Quebec and the Montréal Centre-Ville merchants association. The report, whose first edition was published in October, aims to paint a socio-economic picture of the downtown area.

The survey also found office space available for sublet had increased during the fourth quarter, which may foreshadow even more vacancies when leases expire. On the residential front, condo sales fell as new listings soared — a sign that the downtown area may be losing some of its appeal to homeowners.

“It’s impossible not to be preoccupied by the rapid increase in office vacancies,” Jean-Marc Fournier, the former Quebec politician who now heads the UDI, said Thursday in an interview.

Still, with COVID-19 vaccinations set to accelerate in the coming months, “the economic picture is bound to improve,” he said. “People will start returning downtown. It’s much too early to say the office market is going to disappear.”

Public health measures implemented since the start of the pandemic almost a year ago — such as caps on office capacity — have deprived downtown Montreal of more than 500,000 workers and students. A mere 4,163 university and CEGEP students attended in-person classes in the second quarter, the most recent period for which figures are available. Border closures and travel restrictions have also brought tourism to a standstill, hurting hotels and thousands of local businesses.

Seventy per cent of downtown workers carried out their professional activities at home more than three days a week during the fourth quarter, the report said, citing an online survey of 1,000 Montreal-area residents conducted last month.

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