chapters once considered it-self a gateway to culture for many Canadians, a place that wasn't as much about selling as about the actual act of reading. It presented itself less as a bookstore than a meeting place where those not satisfied by coma-inducing television offerings could gather and take the pulse of literate Canada. That's what attracted me to work for the company.
Then along came Indigo and CEO Heather Reisman and her stable of yes- people to sour the atmosphere. Things haven't been the same since.
It all began innocuously enough, just before Reisman took over, with a ban on reading unpurchased material in Chapters coffee shops, a feature much appreciated by consumers. That was followed by the removal from the entranceway of stores around the GTA of several free publications that are required reading if you want to know what's hot around town. They apparently "cluttered up" the doorways.
And now Indigo management has come down on Chapters employees with a strict code for staff appearance. A maximum of one piercing per ear -- no other body parts allowed. Soon, that bookseller with the wild blue hair and the six piercings in one ear who also happens to know everything there is to know about Polish poetry and the photography of Helmut Newton will be replaced by a purified drone with sleeves the perfect length for book-selling.
"We certainly want all of our booksellers to be well groomed, neat, tidy and approachable," says Tracy Nesdoly, Indigo's vice-president of communications. Ah, yes. Nothing breeds creative expression, an appreciation of the arts and a personable staff like uniformity.
But it's the monopolist retailer's latest move that has generated the most outrage and publicity: the systematic removal of seating from the massive stores. Consumer reaction to this is building. It was easier to forgive the corporate concentration of bookselling when you could sink into comfy armchairs. Now it's unclear if there is any redeeming value.
There's even a group, www.SaveOurSofas.org, dedicated to flexing consumer muscle. Says activist Henry Chinaski: "They offered a lot of nice amenities to the public when they were trying to push out a lot of small bookstores. Now that they've done so, they're finding that bookstores are not the most profitable things to keep around. It's a slap in the face to the Canadian public."
Slowly, piece by piece, the generous seating that once embodied the Chapters image is being removed in favour of tables full of "Heather's Picks." Benches that used to occupy space near magazine racks have also disappeared. Evidently, the customers, too, are cluttering up the store.
Walk into any Chapters these days and you're likely to find readers sitting on the floor or window sills or complaining of sore feet while searching fruitlessly for a seat. Employees may ask, "Excuse me, are you planning to buy that magazine?" Some are no doubt polite, others as brusque as workers at a late-night 7-Eleven.
Customer comment boxes have been stuffed with complaints. There's also growing disillusionment among employees. At one point, human resources was concerned enough to send VP Laura Bonney to address our concerns.
But Bonney did more talking than listening. Similar sessions held at outlets across the country haven't stopped the mass exodus of once loyal employees.
Reisman, though, doesn't seem to be concerned.
Addressing a breakfast gathering at U of T's Rotman School of Management last Friday, she responded to the couch kerfuffle by saying the sofas were giving rise, ahem, to situations similar to those Monica Lewinsky found herself in with a certain former president.
That's some kind of blow job coming from Canada's favourite entrepreneur. Call up her profile on the Chapters/Indigo Web site and there's no end to her credits as a pioneer, supposedly, of "understanding and building of New Age organizations."
Under "Who We Are" we find this little ditty -- what Reisman's pulling is, after all, a song and dance -- about Indigo's commitment "to providing a service-driven, stress-free approach to satisfying the book-lover.
"We said in the very beginning," the statement continues, "that we wanted to create a true book-lovers' haven -- a place to discover books, music and more that might, in the rush of life, have gone undiscovered. A place that reflects the best of a small proprietor-run shop bundled with the selection of a true emporium." Hmm.
I can't help thinking that the shrinking bottom line and the trouble the company's having jettisoning 23 stores it was supposed to sell under the terms of its merger with Chapters may be putting a dent in its mission. The company made a share offering last year to raise money and is hoping to complete another, by some reports, by the end of this month.
More and more, Reisman's stated goal of creating a space for "community" feels like a marketing gimmick. "It was only after our protests (at a Montreal outlet) that we received word (from the company) that there was this backup plan to replace couches with hard furniture," says Chinaski.
Over at Indigo, Nesdoly will hear none of it. "I don't see a groundswell of opposition." She says the reason for the removal of couches is a simple one: "We were just finding them very, very difficult to keep clean and maintain." And she rejects the notion that their removal is making their retail outlets more inhospitable or that removing seating flies in the face of the company's stated goal of creating a "book-lovers' haven."
"Do what you will. I can't help you further. We're retailers and make no apologies for wanting to sell books."
Indeed. I have come by this knowledge by putting in my time as a Chapters bookseller. But yesterday I gave my notice.
As a soon-to-be-ex-Chapters employee, I'm saddened watching one of this country's prime cultural outlets turn into a place where paper and ink are sold. With additional reporting by Enzo Di Matteo