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Indigo CEO Heather Reisman commiserates with book lovers over Toronto store closure

Consider the fate of The Shop Around the Corner, the beloved fictional independent bookstore in Nora Ephron’s You’ve Got Mail that is edged out of its Manhattan community by a “big box mega-chain.” When the movie came out in 1998, the shop could stand in for any number of beloved indie bookstores that had succumbed to an encroaching competitor. Today, even the closure of a mega-chain can elicit sympathy.

On Wednesday night, at a town-hall meeting at the Chapters Runnymede store in Toronto’s Bloor West Village neighbourhood, hundreds of people made their way through heavy snowfall to lament the imminent closure of the “big box” store that, incidentally, was the subject of considerable controversy when it opened in a former cinema in 1998. Flanked by her corporate colleagues, Indigo “chief book lover” Heather Reisman took to the stage where she flipped through a series of preselected questions printed on cue-cards, rehashing the sad, true reality: the company is unable to afford a rent increase on the 22,000 sq.-ft. space. When the store closes in 10 days, it will make room for a Shoppers Drug Mart location expected to open this summer.

Later, Reisman took questions directly from the audience. A woman holding the leash of a scruffy brown dog thanked her favourite staffers by name. A man shouting down from the store’s second-level balcony spoke of his two kids who “grew up in this store.” Mega-chain or not, the crowd was simply upset to lose the neighbourhood’s only remaining brick-and-mortar bookstore.

“Maybe eight months ago we should have had this meeting, when we still had an opportunity to renew [the lease],” Reisman said as an icebreaker. “Maybe I would have said.”¦ “˜Does everybody want to ante up and we create this into a bit of club?'”

By way of consolation, Reisman assured the audience that Indigo wants to stay in the neighbourhood. Accompanying her was Indigo’s head of real estate, Drew McGowen, who fielded questions about where the company has been looking to relocate. As Chapters staffers carried microphones throughout the crowd, question after question took the form of: “Have you looked at location X? Could you just move in there?”

In 2012, Bloor West Village lost two independent bookstores, Book City (which recently announced the closure of its other Bloor Street location in the Annex) and The Book Mark (deemed the city’s oldest). At the time, The Book Mark’s owner, Sue Houghting, blamed a crushing rent increase. Reisman cited the same factor for the Runnymede store’s closure.

“In all of the high-demand areas, rents are going up hugely,” she said. “At the same time that rents are going up, customers ““ maybe not you, but maybe a few of you ““ are very happy to come into stores, browse all the products, and then shop online at the cheapest place they can find. That is happening. You all know it.”

When Book City founder Franz Donker was interviewed on CBC Radio’s Metro Morning following the announcement that the mini-chain’s flagship Annex location would close in March, he cited, almost word for word, the same digital-induced pressure.

In Toronto, several bookstore closures have taken place in the urban periphery ““ neighbourhoods like Bloor West Village that are not suburban, but not exactly in the core, either. It’s telling that, of the 10 Indigo locations in old Toronto, seven of them are located within the central area bordered by Bloor Street to the north, Yonge Street to the east, and Spadina Avenue to the west. Urban residential neighbourhoods such as Bloor West Village (or the Annex, Little Italy, or the Junction) seem to have become inhospitable to bookstores due to high rent and a limited customer base.

“I’m convinced that if this place had a parking lot, we would have been fine,” McGowen said after the meeting. He added that most of the Toronto property Indigo has its eye on ““ at the new RioCan plaza at Keele and St. Clair, for example ““ is located in outlying, car-centric communities. “Books are heavy,” McGowen reasoned.

Still, despite the generally plea-filled questions that arose at the meeting, a few complaints about “corporate responsibility” did come up. What would happen to the staff? (In all, the Runnymede location employs upward of 25 people.)

“We may not be able to provide jobs for 100 per cent of the staff here, but we will work hard to provide jobs for as many of them as we can,” Reisman said.

And what about the impact on publishers, one woman asked. Would publishers, especially small publishers, be expected to absorb huge quantities of returns?

Reisman said that Indigo will transfer some inventory to its other stores, and some will be returned. But she added that there’s a certain amount of “nostalgia and lore” in the industry “around how companies like Indigo are treating publishers.” In her estimation, publishers’ feelings of victimization are out of line. “If you follow the book industry,” she said, you’ll see that most large publishers are “doing better than bookstores over the last number of years.”

“Large publishers today are doing extraordinarily well,” she continued. “The ebook revolution has actually been extremely financially lucrative for large publishers, because they can sell a book with no cost associated with it…. Small publishers will always have a challenge, because it’s a hard business to make money at.”

Around 8 p.m., as the town-hall meeting came to a close, representatives of Penguin Canada greeted attendees with stacks of advance readers’ copies of The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, a novel by U.S. author Gabrielle Zevin due out in April. Indigo staffers handed out a coupon activated with the purchase of a greeting card.

“Do you know if you’ll be placed at one of the other stores?” a woman holding a copy of Crazy Town: The Rob Ford Story asked a young staffer.

“No idea,” the staffer replied, as a colleague sidled up beside her. “Ask this one, she’d know.”

Did this staffer know if she would have a job in 10 days? She did not.