Like many Vancouverites, I presume, I have a love-hate relationship with the big box Chapters bookstore downtown at Robson and Howe. Stocking the main floor with almost everything BUT books, bringing in the flag-waving American Girl franchise to what is supposed to be a Canadian bookstore, and, worst of all, the shameful relegation of books by local and B.C. authors to a shelf way at the back on the third floor with a title “Local interest” do not exactly warm the cockles of my heart.
On the other hand, it’s the only bookstore that isn’t a used bookstore in downtown Vancouver, it has lots of natural light, and I buy lots of books there. Plus, of course, so-called “bricks-and-mortar” stores fend off the increasingly worrisome dominance of the book trade by the new robber baron of our age, Amazon. So I was not a happy reader to discover that Chapters’ Robson store will be closing to the public at the end of May, driven out by sky-high rent brought on by Nordstrom’s coming mega-store across the street. The big bucks are in retail, not, alas, in books.
Unless Chapters is able to find a new location in short order, this will leave Canada’s third largest city without a downtown bookstore, a development that would speak volumes about where our strange, soulless society is heading. Just what Vancouver needs, another Sport Chek.
Luckily, perhaps, we have Heather Reisman, the boss lady of Indigo, which owns the Chapters chain. (More on that, later). Still a professed book believer, she came to Vancouver recently to scout out locations for a new bookstore in the ‘hood. And (insert blare of trumpets here) she held a public meeting at the store to bring us up to date on her company’s plans and actually listen to us store-users.
I was more impressed by this corporate mogul than I expected to be. With no fanfare or introduction, Reisman simply walked up the front and began talking to us. She provided information, personably answered questions, and even asked our opinions about stuff, no matter how unlikely our raised or lowered hands would factor into the company’s cold, hard decision-making. In turn, we were polite, friendly and inquisitive, as only life-long book buyers can be. Okay, there were a few cranky questions (guilty, my lord . . .), but not many. Here are some of the things we learned. All quotes are Reisman’s, unless indicated.
1. The current Chapters store is 53,000 sq. ft. “That’s a bigger store than we need.” The third floor was added by Chapters in an effort to head off Indigo’s charge into the bookstore business. When Indigo prevailed and took over Chapters, they were stuck with the excess space. “What we need is 30,000 sq. ft . . . While the rent was sustainable, we could sustain that amount of space, but they doubled the rent.” Goodbye, Chapters on Robson, but Indigo is committed to opening a new bookstore downtown.
2. Reisman was positive about her company’s future. “Indigo is growing. We are hugely committed to the business. We are not looking to close stores.” She agreed physical bookstores have challenges, but pointed out that e-reading has leveled off (17%) and some former e-readers are beginning to buy physical books, again. At the same time, young adult readership is “exploding”. On the down side, although Indigo’s online business is growing, so too, of course, is Amazon’s. She derided a fellow in the audience who said he came to Chapters to browse, then went home to order the books he liked online. “If you browse here and buy elsewhere, that hurts our ability to keep bricks and mortar stores. . . If you buy more online, then we are in trouble.”
3. Yes, there are lots of other products for sale at Indigo bookstores. “It’s not exactly a bookstore anymore . . . but it is still the centre of what we do. I love to be surrounded by books, but we want to extend products for the consumer.” The add-on formula is working, Reisman said. “It’s why we’re doing better. We need other products to enrich us.” She avowed: “We are a passionate bookstore. We do not want the bricks and mortar stores to go away.”
4. Nor is all gloom and doom. Business at the company’s physical bookstores had single digit grown last year. Its online business had double digit growth. “We’ve had a nice kind of growth.”
5. If you prefer the name Chapters to Indigo, you will soon be out of luck. Reisman said they kept the name on stores bought up by Indigo “because some people love their Chapters.” But now: “Slowly and surely, we are going to change all the names to Indigo.”
6. Odds and ends: Indigo is looking to enhance its in-store rewards program. Toys in bookstores? “We are one of the few toy stores downtown, and we are very committed to our toy stores.” Does Reisman really read all those books that become “Heather’s picks”? “Yes! I read them all. My picks are books I have read and loved like crazy. Magazines? “Sales have gone down a bit, but we’re starting to do better. We’re holding our own.”
7. AND NOW THE BIG ONE! Yours truly, modest co-author of the best-selling, prize-winning tale of the Dave Barrett government, The Art of the Impossible: Dave Barrett and the NDP in Power, 1972-1975, complained about the lack of prominence Chapters gives to local and B.C. authors. “If you can find them, they are way at the back of the third floor, categorized as ‘Local Interest.’ Is that acceptable?” Surprisingly, Reisman agreed this was bad. She noticed the same thing in another of her bookstores. “For sure, we have to look at that.” I’m not holding my breath, but it was something.
Finally, here’s a take on the pending closure of Chapters on Robson by the “alternative” folks at Rabble, who celebrate independent bookstores, though comparing the two is really apples and oranges. Long may both survive.
First published on Mickleblog.