The no-longer-in-operation Chapters at John and Richmond
Over the last year, the flagship downtown Chapters in each one of Canada’s three largest cities has closed its doors. Starting with Toronto’s John and Richmond location in 2014, Indigo went on to close the Chapters on Montreal’s Ste. Catherine, and then announced that Vancouver’s Robson site would close down and, after finding a new location, re-brand as an Indigo. All signs point toward Indigo putting the Chapters brand to rest.
The end of Chapters began in June 2001, when Chapters Inc. and Indigo Books & Music merged to form the single largest book retailer in Canada. The announcement came after Indigo CEO Heather Reisman’s company, Trilogy Retail Enterprises LP, acquired 70.5 percent of Chapters in a hostile corporate takeover. Despite the aims of the executive board, the large majority of Chapters’ shareholders sold to Reisman. As of 2014, Indigo accounts for half of all offline book sales in Canada.
The first Indigo superstore opened in Burlington, ON in 1997. Chapters, which formed when Coles and SmithBooks merged in 1994, opened its first locations under the Chapters brand in 1995, in Burlington, ON and Burnaby, BC. The second half of the 1990s saw superstore bookstores replace the smaller, mall-oriented Coles in suburban cities, while the launch of flagship locations in urban centres contributed to the closures of a number of independents. The two companies were practically in an arms race to win Canadians’ book budgets, resulting in a glut of nearby locations that are finally being culled.
CEO Reisman cited rising rents in both Toronto and Vancouver, while the Montreal Chapters was closed when its lease ended because it was only two blocks away from an Indigo.
When the high concentration of the bookselling business under single ownership came under question, Reisman argued that Indigo’s aggressive and unprofitable model of expansion made it necessary to merge with the profitable Chapters. The Canadian Competition Bureau accepted the argument, but required the new Chapters-Indigo to sell off many the small-format SmithBooks and Classic Books, brands Chapters had left over from earlier mergers.
I was working at a bar around the corner from the Chapters at John and Richmond when it closed down. During its “everything must go” phase, customers would come in and tell stories of the two or three hours they’d spent in line. The Chapters employees who darted out to the bar on their lunch breaks said the store was packed and that they had had to lock the doors early the day before to keep the mob from expanding. This confirmed at least one thing. People still want books, and at the right price, they’re even willing to line up for them.
Why, then, is Indigo struggling to keep its downtown locations open? Since the two companies merged, Chapters locations were slowly transforming, beginning to resemble the original Indigo concept, which involved more space for the gift (and later, the electronics) section and a higher concentration of trade paperbacks over cheaper, mass-market books. The latter shift could explain some of the company’s problems. If the John and Richmond Chapters managed to empty its shelves in a matter of days, the issue is not low demand for books in these areas, it’s an issue of price point. Mass-market paperbacks probably aren’t the sole solution, but shifting ever more floor space to towels and tea candles does not draw readers through the door, either. Indigo, which itself sells books online at lower prices than in stores, relies on a romance of the bookstore to justify buying its products in person. It’s also a romance that Indigo has designed out of its locations.
Only lower offline prices, or higher online prices, through price-fixing, can balance the competition. However, even price-fixing may not salvage the downtown bookstore.
The Death and Life of the Chapters Brand Predicted in 1959
In 1959’s Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs spent a considerable amount of paper describing how of New York’s Upper West Side’s long, uninterrupted blocks were the reason the Upper West Side had fewer bookstores than the Lower East Side. The Upper West Side was not illiterate. Rather, Jacobs argued that the Upper West Side’s street plan meant that a couple of north-south avenues were the only streets where foot traffic density made many businesses viable. Accordingly, the demand for retail space on the avenues priced out low-rent businesses like bookstores.
The decline of the downtown Chapters is two-sided. When another Toronto Chapters closed in Bloor West Village, Book City opened down the street. It had previously closed down a location in the same area, having lost too much of its market share when that Chapters first opened. After shutting down its Annex location a few months earlier, Book City reallocated its resources from a bookstore-rich area to a neighbourhood without any at all. The offline demand for books in that neighbourhood may not have been enough to keep open a large format, high margin, corporate enterprise, but it was enough for a smaller independent to reopen its doors. On the other hand, no such return of the independent is likely in the more central, extremely-high-rent Entertainment District. The same could be said for central Ste-Catherine or Robson, both areas with some of the most expensive retail square footage in the country. The sad reality is that in Canadian cities’ most central downtown areas, independent bookstores cannot afford to open or stay open. As with many other industries, corporate chains are often the only viable commercial options. If even Indigo cannot afford to do business in Toronto’s Entertainment District, then it may become a bookless neighbourhood.
In the case of Toronto’s Entertainment District, the problem is not that its 10,000 residents don’t read or buy books. The very development pressures that have put more people in the neighbourhood are slowly homogenizing it by pricing out certain types of businesses. Jacobs described downtown Manhattan in the 1950s as a place where only restaurants and department stores could survive, and they all shut down by six p.m. The singular function of the downtown office district narrowed its commerce to eating and errand-running, all during a few hours at lunch and after work. Real estate development is becoming the single most important economic use for downtown real estate, a fact illuminated by the presence of a condo sales centre in Pages Bookstore’s former site. The proliferation of storefronts selling apartments starting at $200,000 is a sign. The bestseller on the market now, the thing that not even the Apple Watch can rival, is a piece of city air. As long as this is the case, not just bookstores, but every retailer will struggle to survive in Canada’s largest downtown cores.
As Indigo searches for a new location in downtown Vancouver, it has announced that the new location will indeed be branded as an Indigo (and not a Chapters). Fifteen years after the book wars ended, Chapters begins to disappear. It’s only a brand, and this month, The Town Crier’s Domenica Martinello has already exposed some of its most pernicious practices. I can’t help but miss Chapters, though. Browsing through the enormous sci-fi/fantasy section was how I first became a reader and a lover of books. Chapters always seemed better at recreating the romance of bookstores than Indigo. There was always one feature Chapters had that made it so appealing, even over independent retailers that have to be so economical with space: there were always dozens of places to sit, and zero pressure to buy anything. That was one of the first things Indigo changed. Indigo, from its very beginning, has been in the business of business. As a book superstore, Chapters at least maintained the illusion that it cared about reading.