World’s Biggest bookstore, downtown Toronto “icon,” set to close in February

November 21, 2013 by · 1 Comment 

World's_Biggest_BookstoreWhen I was a kid in Toronto, my father used to take me on weekends to look at the model trains at the flagship Simpsons department store at the corner of Queen and Yonge Streets. When I got a little older, on one of our weekend sojourns my father walked me a few blocks north and introduced me to something I came to consider even more magical and fascinating than the elaborate toy railway constructions that were such a huge part of my childhood.

The World’s Biggest Bookstore, a sprawling, 64,000 square-foot building located on a side street off of what was at the time a seedy stretch of Yonge north of Dundas, was a marvellous refuge for an already bookish kid: row upon row of books stretched over two levels, covering every subject imaginable, and then some. As a child, I mostly confined myself to the sci-fi and horror sections of the store; in my later teens I branched out into mystery, then started looking further afield, scouring the shelves marked “Fiction,” “History,” “Political Science,” “Film,” “Music,” and even, eventually, “Poetry.”

My literary sensibility has obviously evolved since I first walked through the glass doors of that enormous red building on Edward Street, but one thing has not changed in all those years: I’ve never stopped dropping by the store to poke around and see what I could find.

It now appears that the iconic downtown Toronto location, opened by bookseller Jack Cole in 1980, will disappear in the new year. An article in the Toronto Star indicates that the store is in the process of being sold to a developer, and will close to the public in February 2014.

The store had been leased by Indigo Books and Music for $1.5 million a year. The lease is up at the end of December, and according to the Star, Indigo cannot afford the new rent:

[Dan McGowen, vice-president of real estate and development for Indigo] said the company is rebalancing its real estate portfolio.

“You have to look at your portfolio on an ongoing basis, and we have a very large store at the Eaton Centre,” he said.

“This isn’t us in a mode of shutting down stores. We will be going back out in the market and looking for some net new stores,” said McGowen.

McGowen’s comments stand in contrast to those quoted in The Globe and Mail in June 2012. Word had spread that the landlord for the Edward Street property was scouting new tenants for the location once the lease came up, but McGowen insisted at the time that the World’s Biggest Bookstore was a “one-off” and the company would fight to keep it open. “I realize it isn’t literally the world’s biggest, but you know what, it’s the biggest for us. It is an absolute icon.”

Icon or not, it appears the store is set to go the way of another downtown Toronto landmark, Sam the Record Man, which was located right around the corner on Yonge until it was torn down in 2009 (the spot is now being developed as part of Ryerson University).

Perusing the shelves at the World’s Biggest Bookstore in recent years has been bittersweet. An air of mustiness pervades, and the stock on display has depleted noticeably. The volume of books on the shelves has been becoming increasingly sparse, with huge swathes of space given over to a handful of bestselling authors (the ubiquitous James Patterson, for example, or E.L. James and J.K. Rowling). What stock remains is somewhat tattered from being thumbed, and many of the books are noticeably yellowing as a result of exposure to the store’s harsh florescent lighting. Precious few customers can be seen browsing the aisles, and the generally decrepit state of the merchandise testifies to books that have been sitting unsold for some time, victims of a buying public that makes more and more of its purchases online rather than in-store.

However, for a kid who spent hours roaming the shelves, and an adult who kept returning to poke around on the odd weekend, there is a palpable air of nostalgia attached to the news of the store’s closing. It is not just another spot from my childhood that is set to disappear; the World’s Biggest Bookstore played a fundamental role in nurturing my love for literature and writing, and I, for one, will miss it when it’s gone.

Closing the book on one vision of Indigo Books & Music

November 10, 2011 by · 1 Comment 

It is becoming more apparent with each successive move that Indigo Books & Music, along with its CEO, Heather Reisman, sees no future in bookselling.

At the beginning of this year, the company implemented a 4% co-op fee on all books sold through at its stores, replacing the previous model, in which publishers paid for co-op individually. This made a number of industry watchers nervous because, it was assumed, if Indigo were to dictate placement rather than publishers buying space for individual titles that might not otherwise be afforded prominence, the chain would give preference to surefire bestsellers purchased in large numbers. These concerns were not ill-founded. If you want to see the effects of the new co-op regime in action, take a jog over to the Indigo-owned World’s Biggest Bookstore in downtown Toronto, where one single title, Walter Isaacson’s biography of the late Steve Jobs – a recent “Heather’s Pick,” and one of two books that appear to be driving Reisman’s retail philosophy at the moment* – has placement in practically every prominent space at the front of the store (on the walls, table displays, free-standing shelves, and at the front cash), as well as appearing in significant numbers on tables and stand-up displays in both the business and biography sections.

Then in March, the company announced it was replacing president Joel Silver with Tedford G. Marlow, a former executive at such bookish companies as Urban Outfitters, Neiman Marcus, and Saks Fifth Avenue. Soon after Marlow’s appointment, Indigo announced it was planning to make significant changes to the product mix in its stores, decreasing the amount of floor space devoted to books in favour of space for more lifestyle-oriented products (read: candles, desk lamps, and tchotchkes). These, it should be noted, would be designed for Indigo out of a studio in New York.

At around the same time, Indigo changed its returns policy, saying that it would re-evaluate the industry norm of ninety days before stock could be returned, with underperforming titles facing potential return in as few as forty-five days. Such “underperforming” books would not, of course, be ones like Isaacson’s Steve Jobs, but rather titles from smaller Canadian houses that were ordered in lower quantities and then placed spine out on the shelves. (If you think this constitutes the dictionary definition of a “self-fulfilling prophecy,” you’re probably not far off.)

At the time, Reisman told Publishers Weekly that the changes were necessary to compete with the drop in book sales resulting from customers’ migration to e-books: “In order to continue to be in the physical book business, we must add other product which feels like it fits with our journey because if you don’t and you lose 20%, 30% of your business to digital, you can’t stay in business.” Indigo’s “new mission,” Reisman told PW, would be “to enrich the lives of our customers. We are transitioning from being a bookstore to being a store that enriches the customers’ lives.” However, when all is said and done, Reisman, who styles herself as the company’s “chief booklover,” insisted, “Books and reading are at the heart and soul of Indigo and always will be.” (My emphasis.)

That was back in April. Cut to late afternoon this past Tuesday, when much of the publishing industry in Toronto was focused on that night’s ceremony to award the 2011 Scotiabank Giller Prize. A press release was sent out announcing that Kobo, the e-reading company in which Indigo holds a majority stake, is being sold to the Japanese e-commerce outfit Rakuten for the astounding sum of $315 million (U.S.).

The deal, from which Indigo stands to receive between $140 and $150 million, initially seemed like a tech story and little more. But that was before an article in the business section of today’s Globe and Mail suggested that Reisman does not intend to use the new money to bolster the bookselling side of her business, but rather to funnel it into the development of lifestyle products. In the Globe article, Marina Strauss writes that as a result of the Rakuten deal, “Ms. Reisman is in a stronger position to make acquisitions and expand non-book ventures, to offset Indigo’s shrinking book business. She will invest heavily to shore up her new product design and development studio in New York City, which is focused on home decor and gift items.” The article states that Indigo forecasts book sales to account for only 50% of its revenue in “a couple of years,” down from 75% now.

What is remarkable about the Globe article is the way brand strategist Anthony Campbell analyzes Indigo’s divestiture of Kobo. Campbell points to the incipient appearance in Canada of U.S. discount chain Target, and suggests that Indigo’s new direction will help them maintain “focus” to be competitive in the coming retail landscape: “It is a big challenge – there are a lot of retailers in this [lifestyle gift and home decor] space and it is where the world is going for a lot of other brands … Target’s been doing it for a long time, and they’re going to be in Canada in a short while. Heather & Co. is seeing that future … She’s getting ahead of some of her competition in this move.” Note what the presumed competition is: Target and other lifestyle retailers. The space in which Indigo operates, according to Campbell, involves interior design and decor. Nowhere do books even enter the equation.

Of course, Reisman may indeed be ahead of the game in her move to reinvent the Indigo brand. A report commissioned by the Australian government’s Book Industry Strategy Group pointed to Indigo as a potential model for Australian bookstores to follow if they wish to remain profitable while confronting the “paradigmatic change” thrown up by the advent of digital reading. An article in the October 4 edition of the Sydney Morning Herald states:

While there was no ”silver bullet” for booksellers, the report singles out Indigo, Canada’s largest bookseller, which promotes books as a ”lifestyle,” not a product. It sells giftware, children’s toys, video games, music, gourmet food, and even flowers and is an example of an independent bookseller leveraging people’s affection for books.

But it seems ever more apparent that Reisman is unconvinced of “people’s affection for books.” Her assertion that Indigo is “transitioning from being a bookstore to being a store that enriches the customers’ lives” leaves aside the notion that books themselves are capable of enriching people’s lives. But given the precipitous drop in the number of books people are actually buying over the counter at bricks-and-mortar bookstores, both large and small, the move to diversify her stores’ product mix may prove to be a wise business decision in the long run. The big-box bookstore model was likely unsustainable anyway, something Gordon Lockheed foresaw in a 2001 article for Dooney’s Café, right around the time that Indigo merged with its then-competitor, Chapters:

What nobody has considered, in the general rush to declare Heather Reisman a culture hero and save Chapters/Indigo, is the possibility that as a machine for selling books and making money, Chapters and its successor doesn’t seem to work. It is becoming painfully obvious that the only real economy of scale Chapters/Indigo enjoys is the muscle it wields in dictating terms to suppliers. From the beginning, Chapters bled red, and there isn’t much evidence to suggest that Chapters/Indigo can make money today …

What was true a decade ago is even more true in the digitally obsessed present. Perhaps a sharp right turn into lifestyle products will alleviate some of the burden from the company’s bottom line. However, it appears less and less likely that books will remain “the heart and soul of Indigo” in the new order of things.

*The other is Starbucks’ CEO Howard Schultz’s Onward, also a Heather’s Pick.

Indigo’s four per-cent solution

December 17, 2010 by · 4 Comments 

Indigo Books and Music, the country’s largest bookstore chain, is planning to revamp their co-op program in the new year, in a way that is sure to ruffle some feathers in the publishing industry. Previously, publishers paid co-op money to the chain in exchange for premium placement on tables or endcaps. Under the new rules, which come into effect on January 1, all publishers will be charged a 4% fee on all titles that sell through at the chain. Unlike the old model, however, publishers won’t necessarily have the ability to dictate where the co-op money gets allocated, which gives Indigo more flexibility to promote titles it wants to sell.

Bahram Olfati, vice president of adult trade at Indigo, recently sent an e-mail to publishers and distributors informing them of the impending changes. Here is the relevant paragraph from the Quill & Quire story:

The question now is: will publishers continue to have a say in store placement? Or will placement be determined entirely by Indigo staffers? In his e-mail to vendors, Olfati stated only that “we will continue to work closely with the publishers to make sure that all new authors and titles needing special attention/promotions receive front of store placement,” and that “all titles of more than 800 units will receive table placement.”

Of course, this puts smaller publishers and mid-list or debut authors at a disadvantage, since Indigo rarely orders titles from these groups in volume numbers. Small publishers are much more likely to see Indigo stores stock one or two copies of their titles, spine out on the shelves.

Publishers in Canada have been understandably reluctant to go on the record about the revamped co-op program, not wanting to adversely affect their relationship with the largest bookseller in the country. However, it is easy to see how many publishers might be uncomfortable with the new scheme, which amounts to a tariff levied on all books sold. Once again, it will be the smaller and regional publisher that will bear the brunt of any pain that the new rules cause: it’s hard to imagine brand name authors from Random House or HarperCollins getting short shrift in terms of placement at Indigo, while it is very easy to imagine this happening to books from Breakwater or Turnstone.

If there is a silver lining to all this, it is that Indigo likely already accounts for fewer sales of small press titles than do independents and regional outlets that will hand sell them in a dedicated way. Still, the change could result in a decrease in the breadth of titles that receive exposure at Indigo locations, which is not heartening in today’s difficult bookselling environment.

Penguin and Indigo see (RED)

December 1, 2010 by · 3 Comments 

December 1 is World AIDS Day, and to mark the occasion, the country’s largest bookseller has teamed up with one of the world’s most recognizable publishers to promote a new line of classic novels that will help battle HIV/AIDS in Africa. Indigo Books and Music has signed on to sell special (RED) editions of 16 Penguin Classics titles. Fifty percent of profits from the (RED) editions will go directly to the Global Fund to eliminate AIDS in Africa.

The special (RED) editions have been repackaged with newly commissioned cover art. The traditional black has been replaced with red, and the covers employ words and phrases taken from the books.

Indigo CEO Heather Reisman is quoted in a press release from Penguin Canada:

Penguin Classics have captured the imagination of millions of readers around the world for generations, transforming the way people think, feel, and read forever. The message of this campaign is that these great books still have power to change lives – and, literally, to save lives.

The sixteen titles in the campaign are:

  • Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
  • Dracula by Bram Stoker
  • Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
  • The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton
  • Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson
  • The Lady with a Little Dog and Other Stories by Anton Chekhov
  • Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
  • Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky
  • The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad
  • Sentimental Education by Gustave Flaubert
  • Silas Marner by George Eliot
  • Sons and Lovers by D.H. Lawrence
  • Thérèse Raquin by Emile Zola
  • The Turn of the Screw by Henry James
  • Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackerey
  • Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

Indigo has an exclusive licence to sell these titles until January 31, 2011. After that, the special editions will be rolled out to the trade, according to Yvonne Hunter, vice president, publicity and marketing at Penguin Canada.

Indigo, on-sale dates, and the Stieg Larsson fiasco

May 19, 2010 by · 2 Comments 

Yesterday, yr. humble correspondent moderated a joint Book and Periodical Council/Book Publishers Professionals Association Ideas Exchange panel on the future of the bookstore (one reason among many for the lack of a short story post yesterday; there’s one coming later today, I promise). The panel discussion touched on the bookstore as communal space; the need for booksellers to pick up the slack from publishers in promoting books and authors; the way e-books and print-on-demand technology will change the appearance and nature of a physical bookstore; and issues surrounding parallel importation laws. Although the subject came up very briefly, no one said anything particularly substantive about Indigo Books & Music’s recent breach of protocol in deciding to release the highly anticipated final book in Stieg Larsson’s bestselling Millennium trilogy, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, a full 11 days prior to the publisher’s specified release date.

On Monday, Bookninja posted a piece asking readers to confirm e-mails that had started rolling in over the weekend stating that Larsson’s book was on sale in Chapters and Indigo locations, despite the fact that the book’s publisher, Penguin Canada, indicated that the book’s on-sale date was May 25. Readers quickly chimed in with additional information: apparently, there was no signed embargo on the book, but there was an understanding that Penguin’s on-sale date was May 25, and a general expectation (vain hope?) that booksellers would abide by this. In any event, Penguin’s director of publicity and marketing told The Afterword, “The book was not a strict on-sale,” meaning that there was no signed contract stipulating a one-day laydown. Regardless, if a publisher sets a specific on-sale date and a bookseller ignores that, there may be repercussions, such as restricted access to a publisher’s titles in the future.

The problem in this case is that many independents didn’t even have the book in their stores when Indigo jumped the gun, which means they lost out on the crucial first few selling days of the title. A Bookninja commenter from the Guelph indie The Book Shelf says that books were shipped to Chapters/Indigo warehouses a week prior to the specified release date, as per usual, but Chapters then couriered the stock to individual store locations, much to Penguin’s chagrin.

Even if there was not a signed embargo agreement, it was dirty pool for Indigo to release its stock more than a week before the publisher’s stated release date. As publishing moves further and further toward Hollywood’s blockbuster mentality, the first few selling days of a major release become more and more important, and independents that didn’t even have the title in their stores when Indigo put the book on sale lose out. One indie bookseller commenting on the Bookninja thread acknowledges that customers who had placed advance orders for the book called to cancel, saying that they had already picked up the title from Indigo over the weekend. Clearly, every lost sale hurts independent bookstores, which are already struggling in a highly inimical environment.

Penguin would be entirely within its rights to exact punitive measures against the big blue monster, such as restricting when (or even if) the chain receives stock of future titles. Naturally, Penguin will not do this. How can it? Indigo accounts for too large a slice of the bookselling pie in Canada. Penguin would be cutting off its nose to spite its face. It would be much easier to exact punitive measures against smaller independents, which may be ordering only 20 or 50 copies of a given title.

Interestingly, another independent bookseller on the Bookninja thread posted a screenshot of a letter from Random House Canada that reads, in part, “During 2009 we have witnessed a noticeable lack of respect from some of our customers in honouring the on sale dates assigned to our new title publications. For this reason we are implementing strict policies that will allow us to restrict shipments to those customers that choose to violate our on-sale dates.” The letter, which is signed by Duncan Shields, vice-president of sales, goes on to say, “We have been very lenient in the past but feel it is time to take such measures to ensure all of our customers have the same advantage when it comes to selling our books” (my emphasis). The letter was apparently sent in an e-mail with the subject line, “Fwd: Sensitive On Sale Dates letter for Independents” (my emphasis).

What is clear is that there is one set of rules for indies, and another for Indigo. Independent booksellers are being punished as a result of their relatively small market share. This highlights one of the dangers of a virtual monopoly in any industry, and should be a cause for concern among everyone who loves books in this country. As Lori Cheverie, a buyer at the Bookmark bookstore in Charlottetown, PEI, told Quill & Quire, “It’s such an unfair practice that the big guys are able to dictate when they sell a book and there’s never any repercussions about it, whereas if it were us, we wouldn’t get our next shipment [from the publisher].” It’s well past time that such unfair practices came to an end.

An open letter from Amanda Jernigan

May 12, 2010 by · 1 Comment 

Seems Mount Allison University has decided to bestow an honourary degree on Heather Reisman, president and CEO of Indigo Books & Music. This has prompted a bit of a backlash. One of the most vocal critics of the university’s move is Amanda Jernigan, editor of The New Quarterly and a Mount Allison alumna. Jernigan feels so strongly that she sent an open letter to the university administration. The letter reads in part:

I studied English literature at Mount Allison University from 1997–2001, and have since returned (in 2009) to teach in the English department here. In the intervening years, I worked in the world of Canadian small-press publishing, and so had a front-row seat on the depredations of Chapters/Indigo in the Canadian book trade. A recent article in THIS Magazine paints the picture: “Some 350 indie bookstores closed across Canada in the past decade, and, according to Susan Dayus, executive director of the Canadian Booksellers Association, much of that had to do with the arrival of the Chapters chain. ‘Those closures happened very quickly when Chapters opened,’ Dayus says. ‘The leadership of Chapters was very predatory – they opened across the street or kitty-corner to successful bookstores. And those who didn’t have strong financial backing went under.’”

It wasn’t just the independent bookstores that Chapters threatened; small publishers felt the squeeze as well. It wasn’t that Chapters didn’t buy our books (I say “our” because I was working for Porcupine’s Quill, Printers & Publishers, in Ontario at this time): they did buy our books — and then returned them, in ruinous numbers.

The full text of Jernigan’s letter is online at Bookninja.