I have a friend who sometimes unleashes eloquent yet antagonistic micro rants toward the Chapters-Indigo chain of bookstores. It’s been stuck in my craw of late, mainly because I recently read a bitchy scathing article viciously lambasting Chapters. Some of the sentiments reminded me of my friend’s ired laments, though the article had none of the pith and persuasiveness my friend comes up with. It got me thinking. More accurately, it got me defensive, as not only am I overly fond of my bloated book brothel, but i get defensive easily too.
Obviously, the modern parable about the big corporate bully driving the little guy out of the sandbox has some merit. But I never feel that argument in Ottawa—Ottawa is so bleeding rich and full of colleges that there are still a bunch of little independents and used stores.
But I still remember a long time ago, how very exciting it was to travel to Montreal and visit the 3 story tall Coles on St. Catherine Street. Soooo many books. Things I desperately hunted for among used shops, thinking of as rare books, sat humbly and affordably on their shelves, in print. Who knew this stuff was in print? Not me, there was no internet back in those days when you still had to be wary of raptors. Ottawa had its little shops and it's proto chains: Smiths, Prospero’s and mini Coles. They may already have amalgamated, I don’t remember. The "good" bookstores were fairly limited in shelf-feet and the chains were stocked with bestsellers, self-help books and those ubiquitous treekillers: the coffee table book (motorcycles, dead painters, technicolour recipes). What I did not have access to were big sections on philosophy, religion, science, geopolitics, sociology. I didn’t have an ocean of literature; I didn’t have access to any graphic novels.
(Creepy serendipity: I just turned on my radio and there is an interview with someone about book retailing, the rise of chapters and the fate of the independent. Update 15 minutes later, now Stuart Mclean is calling up book store owners to chat. Ahhhh, CBC. )
One complaint I hear about Chapters is the floor space devoted to “not books”. They sell fancy candles, teas and soaps as well as other over-priced pretty things. I see these things --within the parameters of consumerism--as items people buy for nurturing and slowing down their worlds, and things they buy as precious gifts for people they care about. This strikes me as relatively benign.
Also in the category of “not books”, are untold diversities of notebooks (the premium priced Moleskin, so costly you fear writing something unworthy in it), scrapbooks, and day planners. Again, I see this as addressing and supporting a market for an active life as creator instead of simply encouraging passive consumption of culture. I also see this as providing people/customers with viable alternatives to complete cyber enmeshment > screw the word processor and outlook calendar, here is a paper calendar with photos of jazz artists, and a cozy diary with literary quotes that you can curl up in bed with.
Beyond that they sell a plethora of bizarre and unique board games. Again, I embrace this as a commodity designed with the function of getting people together in real live social activities. A real plus in a world dominated by "social media".
Chapters also recognizes that a crucial component in a functioning civilization is regular easy access to quality amphetamines. To meet this requirement every chapters has a Starbucks—another corporation people take potshots at despite their fair trade price purchasing policy and their unionized employees. Politics of commerce aside, Starbucks brews serious joe.
I remember when Chapters first rolled into town, there was cry of doom. Service would be poor; the stores would be cold and anonymous. And once they had their stranglehold and had killed all the shops, all that delirious selection would vanish. None of that happened in Ottawa. They hire friendly talkative bookworms. They provide seating and you can sit there all day and read a book and no one will come bug you that "the books are for purchasing". Selection is still rich and while they did push a bunch of stores out of the market, many remained. They just aren’t a Walmart Death Machine.
Two disclaimers: 1. Idleprimate received no bananas from Chapters for writing this piece. 2. Idleprimate was not practicing assignment avoidance by writing this piece.