How we ended up with a bum bookstore…

One of my favourite bookstores in the world is the Indigo in Burlington, Ontario. One of my least favourite bookstores in the world is the new Indigo in Charlottetown.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.


Steven Garrity's picture
Steven Garrity on September 17, 2001 - 17:41 Permalink

I don’t know Peter. Can’t get as good a sandwich at the bookstore as you can in Vancouver? Isn’t that part of the point of living here? We get to live in this beautiful place. We can’t have our cake and eat it too.

Johnny Rukavina's picture
Johnny Rukavina on September 17, 2001 - 19:34 Permalink

Actually, I had my sandwich at Yorkdale Mall in Toronto. It was prosciutto with provolone and grilled red peppers on a bun. The whole thing was toasted. I wasn’t even hungry but it was sooooo good.

Ryan Hillier's picture
Ryan Hillier on September 19, 2001 - 00:47 Permalink

Being an employee of the new Indigo in Charlottetown, I took offense to Peter’s comments about the new store. I do, however understand some of your concerns. Yes, the staff may not know everything yet, but I think that all comes with opening of any new store in any industry, does it not? Also, your comment about the “Music” part of the marquee being a “lie” is unjustified. Just because you can’t listen to the music in the store doesn’t mean that there isn’t music at all. As per your remarks on space, I actually must agree with you in part. The store was organized in the best possible way according to the space it had. It is cramped when there are a lot of customers in the store, but when there are only 20 or so browsing around, it feels quite comfortable to walk around in. I just thought this thread could use some commentary from the other side of the table.

Ryan Hillier's picture
Ryan Hillier on September 19, 2001 - 00:54 Permalink

Just thought I’d clarify. In my second sentence, I said “I took offense to Peter’s comments about the new store.” What I meant to say was “At first, I took offense to Peter’s comments.” After I thought about what he was saying, I began to understand some of his arguments.

Peter Rukavina's picture
Peter Rukavina on September 19, 2001 - 01:13 Permalink

Thanks for your comments “from the front lines,” Ryan. My comments regarding music at Indigo/Charlottetown were more of a contrast to other Indigo locations, where music is a much larger part of the mix. At Indigo in Toronto on Bay, for example, the music section rivals some of the better record stores in that City. As to staff: knowledgeable staff should always be part of the proposition for a good bookstore; if there’s going to be a learning curve, as you suggest, then I expect to have my purchases discounted appropriately.

Alan McLeod's picture
Alan McLeod on September 19, 2001 - 11:54 Permalink

Peter — this is an example of an inordinate need for service gone overboard. Given that you know the staff is new, given that you know an automatic supply of ready trained staff in a small location like PEI is unlikely and given that a bookstore is for in large part a particapatory event, for browsing at leisure, why would you ask for a discount when the price you pay is for the item itself. You may think there is a big slice of the price for placating the needy but is there really that much? I know service in my occupation (law) is ill thought of but I do my best to humanize what I do and make it understandable to those I deal with. I do not, however, put a premium prince on that. When I worked in my mother’s flower shop in Halifax years ago, service was a major point of pride but we did not up the cost of a bouquet accordingly. I am hoping that Indigo will have the kind of staffing policy that will encourage education and provide respect for the staff that is sometimes lacking in the local retail sector — a problem often hidden behind platitudes. To expect that level of service on the first weekend is unrealistic as is your expectation of a price discount. I, like you, love the opportunity to see a larger selection. I expect the training of staff on that selection will follow.

Peter Rukavina's picture
Peter Rukavina on September 19, 2001 - 16:12 Permalink

So, in other words Alan, people fresh out of law school should simply be allowed to practice law as if they were a “real” lawyer?

Alan McLeod's picture
Alan McLeod on September 19, 2001 - 17:07 Permalink

They do, after articles — the real conclusion of your training — because they are real lawyers. Their service skill level is reflected in lower hourly fee rates. Your relating the value of service to price of product is too tenuous. A lawyer’s stock in trade is his advice and his time, as the saying goes. A booksellers stock in trade is his books. That is what I pay for. I don’t expect that someone unfamiliar with my interests to know the topic as I do. Many times at the Superstore I am asked “what the hell is that” by as cashier confronted with my purchase of a celeriac or bok choy. I expect that. I don’t ask for a discount. While I agree the service at Indigo is not yet strong, I expect it to improve. Perhaps another test. Ask each of Coles, Indigo or the Bookmark to find you a copy of George Grants essays or a paperback field guide on the birds of africa. I would suspect that Indigo would come out on top — though I may be wrong. Access to that capacity is what I welcome.

Meridee's picture
Meridee on September 7, 2004 - 01:36 Permalink

although i may be a kid, i wouldnt mind saying a bit.
the indigo in charlottetown is the only indigo i’ve ever been to. i’d say its not too bad, i didnt see the cafe, but i wasnt looking for it.
you’d never see me in a bookstore, but lately, its all i can think about!! :D ever since i heard there was manga’s, i’ve been doing my chores a lot faster than usual. i love the great select of manga’s. indigo has the biggest select of manga’s i’ve ever seen! the manga’s each are $17.07 (i dont have any problem with the price because im addicted to them, lol)
keep the manga’s comin!!! and i’ll keep buyin!!
——→big fan of indigo←——-