I’ve been to the new Charlottetown store twice now — it opened last week with much fanfare. It is disappointing. Here’s how, in no particular order:
- The automatic wheelchair accessible doors don’t work. Or rather the first set of doors works, and the second set of doors doesn’t. In my mind, this isn’t a “fix it Monday” kind of thing because it excludes large numbers of customers from an easy means of ingress.
- The marquee says Books, Music, Café. As far as I could tell, the Music part of this consists entirely of two meagre racks of CD’s near the front of the store. There is nothing special about these, and there’s no method for listening to them. In other words, the Music part is a lie for all practical purposes.
- The Café part is a lie too. My brother Johnny says the best sandwich he’s ever had came from the Indigo in Vancouver. I’ll never know, for the Indigo in Charlottetown doesn’t serve sandwiches. It serves banana bread and cinnamon rolls and coffee. If you go in expecting Upper Canadian delights never seen before on PEI, you will emerge diappointed. In other worlds it’s a feeble imitation of a café, and pales when compared to any other café in Charlottetown.
- Which is to say nothing of the fact that the café is crammed over into the corner with the magazine rack and contains two or three dinky tables and a couple of seats at the bar. You can’t eat or drink (such as it is) in the café without having magazine browsers in your face. And you can’t browse magazines without feeling as though your stepping into the middle of someone’s conversation.
- The central payment mechanism for the for-pay Internet terminals is broken, rendering all four unusable other than to browser the Indigo website. They are a week old. This doesn’t bode well for the future.
- The staff are inept. I went in on Thursday looking for a copy of a book I’d heard a discussion about on CBC Radio. All that I knew about it was that it contained an essay by Peter Gzowski and was about addiction. The clerk took this information and searched for keyword addiction on her terminal and gave me information about an obviously clinical book called Addiction which was nothing like I’d described. I asked her to be more creative in her search, but she just gave up. I went over to the otherwise-broken public Internet terminal myself and found the book, called Addicted: Notes from the Belly of the Beast in 3 minutes. When I came back to the desk with this information in hand, they looked it up in their system and told me they didn’t have it in stock. But, they happily said, they could order it on the Internet for me. Huh? Yesterday I made the same inquiry at The Bookmark, our smallish downtown Charlottetown bookstore and the clerk immediately led me to the location of the book on their shelves (they had about 5 copies). It was exactly the same price as on the Indigo website, and I didn’t have to pay shipping.
- The store is physically cramped, and so feels less like an endless wonderland of books than an over-crowded grocery store. I found this not only this morning when I tried to wheel wee Oliver around the store in a stroller on a busy Saturday morning, but also on Thursday night when I showed up close to closing time and there was almost nobody around at all. To make matters worse there’s no special area for their public events — readings, signings, etc. — so they just set up the chairs in amongst the stacks and aisles. This all wouldn’t be so bad if they actually appeared to have a wonderful selection of books unavailable elsewhere, but my experience was that The Bookmark — of which I’ve never been a great fan — has an equal or better selection in 1/32 the space.
I actually like big-box bookstores, and I’ve never decried them, in a You’ve Got Mail-like way, as being evil just because they’re all big and corporate. I can happily spend 3 or 4 hours in the Borders in Bangor or the Barnes & Noble in Manchester. Or even at the aforementioned Indigo in Burlington, which is open and airy, has a well-stocked cafe, and excellent magazine section and attentive staff.
But, somehow, we have ended up with the worst situation of all here in Charlottetown: a big-box bookstore that’s just big and alluring enough to drive any remaining independent bookstores out of business but which, in the end, is a mediocre runt of the big-box litter itself. In 6 months to a year we’ll be left with our mediocre, cramped, sandwich-less Indigo as the only place to buy books on PEI.
There is, of course, a simple solution to this problem: buy your books and magazines at The Reading Well or The Bookmark in Charlottetown. These are small and imperfect stores, I grant, but at least they are run by our friends and neighbours and — who would have ever thought! — it looks like they might actually be better bookstores that their new big-box cousin. Don’t like their service? Have a long-term grudge against them for their old “we can order that, but it will take 6 weeks” attitudes? Take the owner aside on your next visit, and tell them they you’ll promise to abandon Indigo in their favour if they get better at what they’re doing. And make sure you tell them what that means.
In the end, we get the mercantile world we deserve.