Canadian booksellers are in various phases of reopening their stores, a process largely determined by the location and the regulations of individual provinces.
Indigo Books & Music, the country's primary bookstore chain, closed all 210 of its stores over two months ago. This week, the company reopened 12 locations, but also announced it will not be renewing the leases on 15 of its smaller format stores after June. The company confirmed that it does plan to reopen its location in Short Hills, N.J. when local regulations and safety measures permit doing so, said spokesperson Kate Gregory.
"Some of the measures we are implementing when we reopen include: hand sanitizer available at entrances and throughout the store, personal protective equipment for our employees, protective shields at our cash desks, steps to ensure it’s possible to practice physical distancing including limiting the capacity of stores, physical distancing markers in store, stringent and frequent sanitation of the store, and more," said Gregory.
As for the prospects going forward, Indigo CEO Heather Reisman believes the company is vulnerable and will suffer without government intervention and flexibility from landlords. Reisman told the Toronto Star, that since closing stores, they have seen a surge in online ordering, "though it’s not profitable at all," adding that "We make no money online." She went on to blame Amazon for instilling a culture of deep discounting.
As for the independent sector, McNally Robinson, one of the country's largest indie bookstores, the doors to its flagship Winnipeg store have been open to customers for three weeks; the company's location in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan reopened earlier this week. "The store in Winnipeg never officially closed because we were continuing all along to fulfill online and phone orders, as well as offering curbside pickup" said co-owner Chris Hall, who said revenue from book sales fell some 75% from comparable levels a year ago. He concurred with Indigo's Reisman in saying that the online and phone orders were "largely unprofitable." Since opening the doors to customers, sales are up to 40% of volume compared to last year. "You can see that customers are cautious and nervous," said Hall. "They don't want to linger and browse, which cuts into sales."
The company, which also operates another smaller store in Winnipeg, as well as a wholesale business and two cafes, typically employs 175 people, but had laid off all but 17. "We are rehiring staff in proportion to rising sales," explained Hall. The store is offering hand sanitizer to customers and staff are wearing masks. "We don't have up plexiglass at the checkout," he said, largely because they only had three days notice before reopening the Winnipeg store. "It was probably better that we didn't have too much time to get fearful. But we are in a big enough space that we can also keep our distance from each other and customers. When someone wants to check out we do what we have come to call a little Covid-dance, where they lean in to pay and we lean back, and we lean in to give them their books and they lean back."
Hall expressed concern for the future. "We are not fine financially," he said. Hall is especially worried about the fact that the store, which was a primary tour destination for authors, will not be able to hold events for the foreseeable future. He was uncertain if his landlord would be willing to make concessions on rent. "We are getting some help from the government and the wage subsidy in Canada has been extended to August, so we have some time to prepare for things," said Hall. Publishers too have offered to help, by giving discounts and favorable terms on new orders to reload the store with books. "But since I really have no money coming in, I am going to have to balance out any orders by pulling returns."
Looking ahead, Hall said, "I go up and down each day, wavering between being quite hopeful and thinking things will never be the same again."
In downtown Toronto at Ben McNally Books, the doors remain closed to customers. "We are getting in email orders and are doing our best to fulfill orders, but since it is mostly me here, it is a slow process," said manager Rupert McNally. "We do not plan to open until a time when we are all comfortable with it," he said, noting that this father Ben, the namesake owner of the store, won't return to work until a time when it is safe for a man of his age to do so. In addition, McNally said that there was little point in rushing to reopen as there was scaffolding impeding entry to the store, which is expected to close this coming August. The store has not found a new location yet, said McNally. "Right now, we just want to see our way through this then we will have to decide what's next."
A Boost for Kobo
One Canadian company that has seen business increase during the pandemic is Toronto-based e-book and audiobbook store Kobo. "The initial surge of sales we saw in the early weeks of pandemic have continued and even accelerated," said Michael Tamblyn, CEO. "In all our key markets, including Canada and the United States, our sales are up between 35% and 130% over last year." The company has also given away 15 million free e-books to readers as part of programs to promote reading during the pandemic. "It has been an interesting time for us. People we used to call 'never-evers' — people who in our marketing research said they would never ever read an e-book — have turned to. It's gratifying that people, when faced with no way of getting print books, have decided to give digital a try."