Indigo Books & Music is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year with a special collection of 28 limited-edition books it published in September that includes important titles released in the past quarter century. The collection includes CanLit classics such as Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes, Thomas King’s The Inconvenient Indian, Alice Munro’s Lives of Girls and Women, and Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient; national nonfiction favorites, such as Chris Hadfield’s An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth and Orr: My Story by Bobby Orr; and a selection of contemporary hits such as Anthony Doerr’s All the Light You Cannot See, Rupi Kaur’s Milk and Honey, and Tara Westover’s Educated. The hardcover books all feature blue endpapers that echo the bookstore’s branding and are illustrated with covers created by emerging Canadian artists.
“Nineteen of the books are Canadian, 15 are fiction, and half are by BIPOC writers,” says Rania Husseini, senior v-p for print books at Indigo. Husseini is, like many Torontonians, foreign born. Originally from Palestine, she emigrated to Canada when she was 16 and eventually joined Indigo, working her way up through the chain’s Coles, Chapters, and Indigo stores to her position today. That experience of having been a young immigrant working in the bookstores informs her buying philosophy. “When I first walked into a bookstore, I did not see myself represented in the books,” she says. “Now, I want to elevate underrepresented voices—whether they are Indigenous, Black, Asian, BIPOC, LGBTQ—so that everyone who comes into one of our stores from any community sees themselves in the books on the shelves.”
In a further effort to make the experience of shopping at Indigo more inclusive, the books must also be attainable to buy. For this reason, the anniversary editions are all priced at C$28, a relatively low price for a hardcover in Canada today. “With some hardcover books now priced as high as C$50 due to inflation, we feel the C$28 price point offers customers great value,” Husseini says. Print runs will be 4,000–6,000 copies each, and a total of 115,000 units of the limited editions will hit the shelves. “When they are gone, they are gone,” she adds.
Yet another important aspect of the selection is that 19 of the books are Heather’s Picks—titles that have in the past been personally selected by Indigo founder and executive chairman Heather Reisman for promotion in the stores. Reisman’s imprimatur often bestows instant bestseller status on a book, which then continues to sell far longer than is typical. “She only chooses books that she personally loves, and when she picks a book, it makes a difference and really extends sales,” Husseini says.
Husseini calls Reisman “an incredible leader”—one who is fully “committed to Canadian books, culture and reading.” Early in the pandemic, Reisman lobbied the Canadian government to deem books an “essential” good, saying at the time that “reading is fundamental to the soul.”
That point about Reisman’s commitment to Canadian books is important, because if there is one issue the store often faces, says Husseini, it’s that customers sometimes don’t perceive it as being Canadian, despite the fact that Indigo has 88 superstores (under the names Chapters and Indigo) and 84 small-format stores (under the names Coles and Indigospirit), employs some 5,000 people across Canada, and has no competitor even close to comparable in size. Yes, there is one Indigo outpost in the United States—in Short Hills, N.J.—but there have been no further plans announced to expand beyond this one location, which “provides enormous customer insight,” Husseini says.
Over the past decade, the chain has gone through something of a reinvention, adding a large array of sidelines ranging from beauty products and yoga mats to mugs and throw pillows. But the focus, Husseini says, is naturally on books, which account for approximately 60% of overall revenue. “We are especially committed to working with smaller, independent Canadian publishers, many of whom are local to their communities. We want to stock our stores, so that when a customer comes in, they feel like the books were selected especially for them.”
That said, if customers don’t find a title that speaks to them, they can order from a selection of 15 million titles available on Indigo’s website, which is being prepped for a full relaunch this fall. “The most important thing we did is update it to ONIX 3.0,” Husseini says, referring to the digital cataloging and metadata standard. In addition, the redesign will offer more opportunities for the store to talk about books and merchandise products in ways that connect with readers. For example, books that are trending on TikTok can be front and center.
Last year, Peter Ruis was named president of Indigo, and on September 5 he was appointed CEO, taking over from Reisman. Ruis, who is British, has 30 years of experience in retail, having worked helped turn around several companies, including Anthropologie and U.K. luxury department store John Lewis.
Indigo began celebrating its anniversary as it began to fully recover from the impact of the pandemic. Sales for the fiscal year ended April 2 were up 17% from fiscal 2021, to C$1.06 billion (about $800 million). The chain also posted an operating profit of C$29 million, compared to a loss of C$31.9 million in fiscal 2021. Indigo’s online business had softened the financial blow when stores had to shut their doors to customers, but in fiscal 2022, sales through its superstores increased 35%, to C$595.5 million, while small store sales increased 29%, to C93.1 million. The gains at the physical stores offset a 13% drop in online sales, which fell to C$321.5 million. Despite that drop, online revenue was 98% higher in fiscal 2022 than in fiscal 2020—a year that ended just as the pandemic was shifting into high gear.
Indigo embraced its omnichannel approach to retailing years ago, and the move continues to provide benefits. The retailer said it saw consumer behavior change over the course of the pandemic, with consumers increasingly beginning the discovery process on its digital platforms and buying books or other items at one of its stores.
As for the future, Husseini says that the chain’s mission is simple: to bring the broadest variety of books to the widest audience, elevate underrepresented voices, and foster inspiration and connection among readers. Husseini says Indigo’s philosophy comes down to one question for each customer: “How can we be a place where they can find inspiration and connect?” After that, the store strives to offer something even more profound: “A sense of purpose and joy.”