Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

People browse books at an Indigo store in Toronto on Sept. 23, 2022.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

When Chapters first opened in Canada in the mid-1990s, it felt like a book nerd’s nirvana: huge stores lined with books, open late. With comfy chairs, hot drinks, it felt like an invitation to readers: pull up a seat and leaf through as many books as you like. Buy one, maybe. (Which, in retrospect, was maybe not a great business model.)

The Chapters invasion was a serious concern for independent bookstores. But something much worse was coming down the pike: The online piranha, Amazon.

Still, Indigo Books & Music, which merged with and took over Chapters in 2001, has survived a drastically changing marketplace – so far, anyway. And not in ways that are to everyone’s liking.

Today, when you walk into an Indigo, you will be greeted with a lot more than books. Those comfy chairs are now in short supply, but you will be encouraged to purchase pillows to top your own chairs at home, and loungewear you can sport there – no book required. Lifestyle goods are a key part of the business. In its past fiscal year, this type of merchandise, including housewares, toys and electronics, accounted for 44 per cent of revenues.

This irritates some literary types. We like our bookstores the way we like our weekends: filled with books.

We also enjoy staff who know and love literature as much as we do, which has been my consistent experience at independent bookstores. At Indigo, it’s hit-or-miss. I was annoyed this week, for instance, when I saw memoirs by Dave Grohl and Paul Newman on the Celebrate Diversity shelves.

The public face of Indigo is founder Heather Reisman, who was CEO until a year ago and executive chair of the board before stepping down last month – and is now CEO again, re-installed this week in a surprise move. Her return followed the resignations earlier this month of CEO Peter Ruis and president Andrea Limbardi. And in the spring, nearly half of the board’s directors departed at the same time; one cited “loss of confidence in board leadership” and “mistreatment.”

Beyond the boardroom, it has been a very rough time for Indigo. In February, a devastating ransomware attack disabled its website for weeks. Indigo lost money in four of its past five fiscal years, including a nearly $50-million loss in 2023 it attributes partly to the cyberattack.

Regardless of the extent that Ms. Reisman is responsible, she seems to be a polarizing figure. (One does wonder if she would attract the same amount of flak if she were not a she.)

I don’t know Ms. Reisman, but I appreciate that she created a brand that celebrates Canadian books. Indigo is not just Canada’s book retailing giant; it is an essential part of our publishing ecosystem, for better or for worse.

As Susan Krashinsky Robertson and Josh O’Kane reported, “Indigo’s sheer market power and marketing heft mean that continued instability could have deep consequences for Canadian literature.”

Canadian publishers and authors rely on Indigo – for sales, yes, but also for marketing and visibility. A prominent Indigo display or in-store event can be a huge boost. Landing a Heather’s Pick sticker on your cover offers a promise of success.

This is embarrassing, but here goes: I published my first book last year, and on the day it was officially released, I planned bookstore visits to see that memoir I had slaved over for years out in the wild, on real shelves in retail stores. I was particularly excited about going to Indigo. I naively had a vision of walking in and seeing my book prominently displayed. I started in the New & Noteworthy area. Not there. The Local Authors display. Nope. The Canadian Writers table, the New Releases Non-Fiction section, the #ReadWomen table – my book was absent from all of the above. I did find a few copies shelved, spines out, upstairs in the biography section.

I was crushed.

It wasn’t just that I thought better promotion might mean better sales. You spend years writing a book; you want people to read it. The lack of validation from Canada’s book giant was also so discouraging. (Granted, when I visited the independent bookstore three blocks from my house, I didn’t see my book at all; when I inquired, the clerk told me the owner “only orders books that will sell.”)

I love bookstores, especially independents. I also appreciate the big chains. Indigo is a crucial player in CanLit, even if it’s half-filled with blankets and beauty products. (God, I love those fuzzy blankets.) Also, it employs about 5,000 people across the country, according to its latest annual report – which also states that books remain Indigo’s “core business.”

“The World Needs More Canada,” say the signs at some Indigo stores. The chain is not perfect, but it’s important. And Canada needs it too.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe