Fifteen or so years ago, I was spending a lot of time in Toronto. The design firm industry there was on a roll, creating beautiful and exciting spaces on both sides of the border.
In my free time, I’d stroll the commercial districts of the city, looking at new retail – especially on Bloor Street, which cuts across the northern end of the central business district, intersecting with posh commercial and residential neighborhoods, such as Yorkville.
The street bustled, in a Madison Avenue/Michigan Avenue/Rodeo Drive sort of way. And there were some large U.S. and European footprints, like the ubiquitous Gap of 15 years ago, Cartier and Louis Vuitton.
But what drew my attention were all of the Canadian retailers, whose stores were the equal of their U.S. counterparts. It was almost as if a huge two-way mirror had been installed on the border. (And no, Canada didn’t pay for it.)
There was the elegant Harry Rosen men’s store (think Paul Stuart), the Holt-Renfrew fashion department store (think Bergdorf Goodman) and a fabulous jewelry store called Birks, with even better visual merchandising than Tiffany & Co. Around the corner was Joe Mimran’s pioneering Club Monaco. Up another street was Lush, the novel decorative soap store concept that actually began in the U.K.
And then there was a mirror-image-of-Barnes & Noble bookstore called Chapters. It was a large space, part of a Canadian chain, and throughout the day Bloor’s pedestrians would wander in and out for a newspaper or a cup of coffee or a literary tchotchke or even a book.
It’s well to remember that, back then, Barnes & Noble was the standard-bearer of big-box category-killers, practically the inventor of the idea. Its aisles were loaded with books, and CDs in the music section. But there were also coffee vendors and stationery tables, newsstands and plenty of comfortable seating throughout the space. You could go in, grab a paper and a cup of coffee, find a comfortable chair and spend the morning. Or you could read a magazine. Or an entire book.
It was the “third place” concept, before Starbucks got all the credit for it.
Today, Barnes & Noble still survives, but barely. It’s a skeleton operation of about 600 stores, and there have been constant “For Sale” signs on the company’s front lawn. The category’s other main player, Borders Books, is out of business.
And Canada’s Chapters? Bought up by a smaller, but aggressive, competitor called Indigo. And today’s Indigo is booming. Its model for, as The New York Times reported, “how a big bookstore chain can thrive in the era of online retail,” is not so distant from Barnes & Noble or Borders or Chapters at their peaks. But it has been redrawn for the millennial point-of-view: roomy-yet-cozy spaces, with a feminine sensibility, and lots of books, which still make up more than 50 percent of Indigo’s sales. Under the guidance of CEO Heather Reisman, the books are curated and sectionalized, and accompanying products fill shelves in the home section or the food section or the wellness section.
Indigo has also developed its own product lines of, according to The Times, “beach mats, scented candles, inspirational wall art, Mason jars, crystal pillars, bento lunchboxes, herb growing kits, copper cheese knife sets, stemless champagne flutes, throw pillows and scarves.” Even baby clothes.
Reisman calls it “a cultural department store.” That reference may sound counterintuitive today, unless you’re someone my age. When I would go with my mother to Chicago’s downtown Marshall Field as a young boy, I remember the aura and magic of the books and stationery department, with all its elegant accessories – leather-bound address books, ivory letter-openers, all sorts of desktop paperweights, big globes of the world sitting and spinning on rich oak stands. That open, bright and inviting department was the first image that jumped to mind when I read about what Indigo is doing.
So Indigo has succeeded in retaining the affection of its Canadian base. And there it will thrive.
Or perhaps here, as well. Indigo is coming to the U.S. Last year, it opened its first store at the powerful Short Hills Mall in New Jersey. Reisman is now looking at New York and other East Coast locations.
When you read about Reisman, you get the idea of a creative mind but also one tuned into what her market wants and appreciates. She reads the books, she talks to the authors, she plans the events, she curates the merchandise.
Not unlike Mimran a decade or so ago, with Club Monaco and then Joe Fresh. Or the people who conceived of selling soap like confectionaries. Or those Bloor Street specialty stores that exuded personal service along with their high-price apparel.
Maybe it’s a Canadian thing.