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April 2014 Print Issue

'Faux fur hot water bottle' finds a home in digital age

CARTOONthumbOne hurried afternoon, I popped by Chapters in Chinook Centre to pick up a book I had been lusting after.

Unfortunately the book was out of stock, and I ended up leaving with a $50-set of bookends, an unsightly keychain, a baby blanket (I don't even have a baby!) and a dry bank account.

Confounded, I looked back at the store. An impressive banner that read, "Your One Stop Magical Holiday Shop," hung over an assortment of pungent candles, overpriced picture frames and cozy throws.

 Guiltily lugging my nonessentials to my car, I wondered how many of the chain's 4.5 million customers have noticed how the store seems more interested in selling yoga mats then books.

Books or Bowls?

Indigo, which took over Chapters in 2001, operates 88 superstores and 158 smaller shops across Canada and maintains they are a company "designed to be a destination for book consumers."

In my opinion, a "faux fur hot water bottle" has as much to do with encouraging people to read as a bad case of eczema ($29.50 in "brown mink" if anyone is interested).

The emergence of these types of products is an indicator that Indigo is spicing things up by mixing in a little faux with their font, an observation that has also been made by Maclean's magazine's Anne Kingston.

Heather Reisman, the company's chief executive officer and also the face behind "Heather's Picks" declined an interview request from the Calgary Journal. However, Reisman recently told The Globe and Mail, her stores were "about the life of a book lover."

"I'm not interested in selling a bowl," she told the paper in an earlier interview. "I am interested in creating an experience around the table for the customer."

And that means offering customers other products — including bowls (I suppose those are found on tables). If you type that word into Indigo's search engine on the store's website, 26 different types of bowls — ranging from a "small ribbed porcelain bowl" for $8.99 to a "set of nesting bowls" for $66.50 — pop up.

Books Find Shelter in Shelf Life

Nestled comfortably on the corner opposite Central Memorial Park in downtown Calgary is Shelf Life Books, one of the city's young independent bookstores and one of Reisman's newest competitors.

Manager Will Lawrence sat in a cozy leather chair as he explained that their store's business is still climbing because customers know that books are their main priority.

"We're interested in books," Lawrence said. "This is a place to come in and choose a book to read. Some people only read a book a month, so it's an important decision we need to help them with."

Suspicious after being subtly swindled at Chapters the week previous, I scoured the CARTOONBooks are losing the fight against bowls, candles, yoga mats as Indigo transitions into a “cultural lifestyle store.”

Photo illustration by Anna Brooks
bookstore in search of evidence to dispute Lawrence's claim. I came up empty-handed, only noticing a set of cupcake memo pads, an assortment of Moleskin journals and a few pairs of reading glasses.

"I like to sell a couple lines of reading glasses because people my age need them," Lawrence joked. "Like the journals we sell, I think these are all-natural items. We're not afraid to stray away a little, but first and foremost we're about books."

Indigo's Reisman also stated that her company was "first and foremost a bookseller" in Indigo's latest annual reports, but she added that the chain is making the transition into a "cultural lifestyle store."

This shift means that books will just have to make a little more room for a growing stock of plush stuffed animals, wallets and water bottles with hackneyed phrases stamped on them.

Heather's Tricks

The motives behind Indigo's shift towards becoming the "world's first lifestyle store" are not unfounded. In a day where e-books are more popular than a pair of Justin Bieber's underpants, I can empathize as bookstores cinch their belts tighter. How can even massive conglomerates like Indigo compete with cyber-giants like Amazon?

Erin Creasey, sales and marketing director for independent publisher EWC Press, said that "concentrated moves" like cutting down shelf space for books are done largely because e-books are dominating the book market. Creasey added that Indigo started replacing books with toys and gifts long before physical book sales actually began to drop.

"They were kind of putting the cart before the horse," Creasey said. "And of course you're going to sell fewer books when you have less books on the shelves for people to buy."

It's true that the total revenues for fiscal 2011-12 decreased by $22.4 million, or 2.3 per cent from the previous fiscal year. But the loss didn't turn out to be so bad as Indigo emerged victorious upon their recent sale of the popular e-book Kobo to Rakuten Inc., Japan's largest e-commerce company in August.

Indigo pocketed a dizzying $165 million, a number the company boasted to be a "five-fold gain."

Profits aside, as Indigo snuggles deeper into one of their comfy throws the book world grows ever colder.

Sarah Cooper, director for the newly launched National Reading Campaign, said that when that world is already suffering from the closure of independent bookstores and the bankruptcy of publishers, "the fact that the big-box chains seem to feel the need to sell a lot of candles" is not a good thing.

"The truth is these corporations feel the need to diversify their stock to buttress their bottom line," Cooper said. "The fact that Indigo is full of candles and giftwrap is definitely a symptom of the disease. But I don't have any empirical evidence for whether that makes the disease worse or not."

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