Indigo Books & Music released its fourth-quarter results Tuesday and they are not promising. This comes as no surprise, as CEO Heather Reisman warned as much in an interview earlier this month with BNN Bloomberg’s Amanda Lang, where she described the depths of the losses as “seismic.” The corporation has announced the closing of 20 of its smaller retail operations, all of them Coles stores in shopping malls in mostly small towns across the country. This is a situation Reisman has described as “a tough decision,” recognizing that in most cases, these were the only bookstores in their towns.
The pandemic shutdowns mandated by governments have not helped any booksellers – whether they be the local independent or Indigo. Some of the independents adapted, providing curbside pickup and home deliveries. Indigo increased its sales online, actually at one point exceeding Amazon’s book sales in Canada. But carrying out business this way has been expensive; the traditionally narrow profit margins are now truly razor-thin.
No matter the stage or phase a city is experiencing, there is no return to “business as usual” for retailers. And of all retailers, this might be truest for booksellers. Customers won’t be able to browse shelves, taking a book down, looking at its back cover, flipping to the opening pages, and putting it back, moving on to peruse another. Like all other retail, bookstores will have to operate under a touch-only-the-items-you-are-purchasing policy – a policy that is contradictory to how such shops have sold books for centuries.
Books authored by Canadians and published by independent Canadian-owned companies are found by browsing the bookshelves of stores; generally, they are not among the stacks of bestsellers on the tables at the front of many stores. They’re the harder-to-find books formerly hidden away in the “Canadiana” sections near the back walls.
Bookstores of all sizes are necessary to link Canadian writers to Canadian readers. The fate of the country’s authors and publishers is bound to the fate of our booksellers. Without them, there is no means of reaching the reading public. There is no marketplace. It’s time that provincial and federal governments understand this and consider bookstores as cultural organizations, worthy of their support. The time is now for governments to step in quickly to ensure that all bookstores remain open, fully staffed, and with Canadian ownership.
Up until now, the governments have focused cultural policy largely on production, pretty much ignoring the means by which books are distributed and disseminated.
There is one exception to the provincial government handling of book publishing policy, and that’s Quebec. In that province, there is a system of accrediting bookstores, which makes them eligible to sell to all levels of government and publicly funded institutions. Bookstores are required to maintain a minimum display of Canadian-authored and -published books, in return for which libraries and schools must buy from them. The result is impressive: There are more independent bookstores in the province of Quebec than in all of English-speaking Canada.
This is something that should be required of any bookseller: that a minimum of 20 per cent of bookshelf space be committed to Canadian books. The federal government in particular should also provide assistance to all bookstores to promote and sell Canadian books in significant numbers, perhaps rebating stores $2 a copy per Canadian book sold. Such a program would have twin goals. The obvious cultural one is to have Canadians buy books by, about, and for Canadians. The less obvious is the business case, a form of “Buy Canadian,” where revenues flow to Canadian companies and individuals who pay taxes in this country.
Books – like films, magazines and music – are necessary for the psychological, emotional and social well-being of all people. Multiple studies have shown that a person’s ability to experience empathy – arguably the glue that holds societies together – is strengthened by reading. This isn’t to say that books are as essential as the masks we should all be wearing when in public; but they are essential in a different and longer-term way.
We are who and what we read. The evidence for this is on display in the bestseller lists of the past few weeks – books by Indigenous writers and persons of colour have landed at the very top. This is a reflection of Canadians’ interest, sparked by the recent protests against police violence targeting racial minorities. As a country, we’re responding to these situations by reading about them. We want to know more. We want to be better.
There should be no hesitation on the part of our governments. Assistance to all booksellers – perhaps, at this moment, especially Indigo – must not be withheld for study. It should be implemented quickly and effectively and with one goal in mind: We need to ensure that the writers of this country have continuing access to its readers.
Marc Côté is the publisher of Cormorant Books, an independent literary press.
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