The Rideau Centre Indigo Store
If you're looking for tea, you're in luck
“It can’t just be more stuff. Everyone’s got too much stuff,” Indigo’s new CEO Peter Ruis told the Globe and Mail in September. The topic of “stuff” came up because Ruis — successor to Indigo Books & Music founding CEO Heather Reisman — was merrily chattering away to the Globe reporter about all the, well, stuff he wanted to start stocking in Indigo and Chapters stores. The chain’s stores already, as regular shoppers know, feature many throw rugs and tea cozies among the books. And some days, it can feel like the books are what’s among the throw rugs. There’s a figure-ground dilemma you have to deal with sometimes.
The grace of Indigo under Reisman was that, while books slowly ceded ground to tchotchkes over the years, they always seemed to be putting up an honourable fight. Staff at every Indigo or Chapters I’ve ever visited are clearly book people. They get excited over your choices, they have suggestions, there’s a good chance they’ve read in the subject area you’re interested in. It’s all good. And it’s not like indie bookshops don’t sell pens or T-shirts or zany hangables too. Nobody’s running a monastery here.
But that Globe interview suggested Ruis just might be interested in kicking things up a notch. It featured paragraphs like this:
Mr. Ruis is planning a major expansion in categories such as cookware, tech gadgets and beauty products. “It’s not four or five things; it’s about 400 or 500 that we’re busily beavering away, trying to bring them to market,” he says, sitting in a boardroom at Indigo’s Toronto offices.
There were also references to “a $450 Ooni pizza oven, a vegan collagen face mist or a set of stemless wine glasses.” Which, you know, fair game. I know whenever I head out to pick up the latest from Charlotte Gray or Elamin Abdelmahmoud, I sometimes get a little peckish. And crow’s-feet-y.
But how far does Ruis, who’s also said “the days of just browsing bookshelves are behind us,” plan to go? I realized my city would soon get a test case when this sign appeared, at the end of September, in a window of the old Chapters downtown Ottawa flagship store at Rideau and Sussex, now shuttered:
This sign inspired the excited/doomed feel I’ve come to associate with life in the 21st century. Who wouldn’t want “a brand-new state of the art Indigo store” a stone’s throw from the office? I’m definitely in favour of “everything you love and more,” and I’m not, per se, against “lifestyle products and inspiring displays.” I’ve been spotted inside the odd Williams-Sonoma too, you know. The reference to “a curated assortment of books” did made me wonder. Did that mean, like, six books?
Last night I saw that the brand-new state of the art Indigo store at the Rideau Centre shopping mall, across from the old Chapters, is open. I popped in. Here’s what I found.
These mall bookstores often have a few entrances, so it’s hard to be sure which is the designer’s front door, the one where your inspiring display experience is supposed to start. I just wandered in off Rideau St., a main downtown artery, which now has significant Indigo frontage between the Farm Boy grocer and the Tokyo Smoke “cannabis” shop. (Does anyone call it cannabis in real life? “Honey, can you pick up some cannabis at the Tokyo Smoke?” I defer to the product’s client base on this. I suppose that one thing’s for sure, you can’t call it stuff. Everyone’s got too much stuff.)
The first sight that greeted me was the wall of jigsaw puzzles you see above. The first surprise at the new Indigo is how packed it is. There are some open spaces on the second floor, but overall the chain’s designers and the store’s manager seem intent on putting more product into each square foot of the new space. Which I would estimate covers about a third the sprawling footprint of the store it replaces.
To the right of the jigsaw puzzles is a row of cash registers, next to a surprisingly complete selection of travel books. I don’t recall the last time I packed a travel book for travel. People have phones. Again, a surprising turnabout: Maybe the store was going to turn out more stubbornly old-fashioned than the pundit.
On the far side of the
cash registers credit-card swipers, another surprising anachronism: magazines. I remember when the store across the street got rid of its newsstand, tired of people who’d park and read the mags and newspapers and not put them neatly back. It makes sense that this is less of a danger now than in 2002.
.Still on the ground floor, I found the mall entrance, which could be the designer’s entrance for all I know. Maybe the Indigo didn’t want to imprint on new customers as a jigsaw-puzzle store at all. Maybe it would show a snazzier face to the indoor traffic. Here’s what you see if you come in from the mall:
Again, at a time when news organizations are assigning growing numbers of my colleagues to the TikTok beat, one hesitates to be too harsh. Besides, maybe this will be what it takes to bring my kids into the store. Who am I to begrudge.
Up those escalators to the second floor, where the Globe article promised I would see a bed. And it’s an odd thing, because reading the Globe article this morning, I swore I hadn’t seen any such thing as a bed. And yet here it is in my photos.
I guess it was there, in among the stuff. So much stuff, though apparently, we’re told, not too much. Perhaps by now you’re getting a sense of what I felt: a place where a bunch of stuff (but not too much!) is scrunched together. Perhaps like Lee Chong’s grocery in John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row it’s meant to be, while not a model of neatness, a miracle of supply.
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I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking the days of just browsing books are over. And yet, over here, amid the home stuff: home books!
Also there was fiction, including “Spicy TikTok,” whose level of overlap with “Trending on TikTok” I didn’t verify.
Whew. I don’t know about you, but I’m a bit winded after seeing two displays of books in a bookstore. Fortunately, I came upon this oasis, the section where there’s paper without anything written on it.
Here, seemingly a little out of order but in fact where it landed in my visit, was the section for New & Hot books that aren’t, or at least aren’t necessarily, Trending on TikTok or Spicy TikTok.
You’re ready for a nap, right? Well, it’s like Peter Ruis can read your mind. The next section was for cuddly rolled-up pyjamas.
Followed by snacks. Chestnut pear jam! Currant raspberry violet jelly!
Finally, as it was coming time to leave, the section for French-language books. There’s a larger non-fiction section in French I didn’t photograph, but here’s what’s left of French-language literature, which used to occupy a separate room in the old Chapters across the street.
This is where I should add that, for people who want a better selection of French-language books, the valiant Librairie du Soleil is only two blocks from this low-slung shelf at Indigo. Just as anyone in Ottawa who wants a slightly more lopsided books-to-stuff ratio will find nirvana at Books on Beechwood and the expanded, impressive Perfect Books on Elgin. Ben McNally’s still fighting the odds in Toronto, Pages on Kensington makes clutter dizzyingly romantic in Calgary, and The Book Keeper in Sarnia remains my favourite bookstore in the country.
Of course any bookstore need only contain the one book that changes your life. There are many thousands of books at the Rideau Indigo, far more than I had worried I’d see. The general impression in the store was of a staff fighting, hard, against the urge to strip the supply down to just the latest Rupi Kaur and some cough drops. Running a downtown bookstore in an age when too many Canadian downtowns feel more like ghost towns can’t be an easy task. But this one didn’t do great when I administered a tough test. On my phone, where others might have TikTok, I keep a list of six books that interested me in the non-fiction section of the New York Times 100 Notable Books of 2022. Using the Indigo app, because the computer terminals that used to help the chain’s customers browse are, for understandable public-health reasons, no longer around, I checked to see whether any of the six books was available in this brand-new state of the art Indigo store. None was.
In On Browsing, his charming, wistful new essay on the way browsing used to mean getting out of your home and going to a place where you could find surprising things, the poet Jason Guriel writes: “There was something steadying, though, about standing in an actual, cavernous bookstore and taking it all in. Your fellow customers shared a room and a set of options. The scale was human, and the stock was present. Some of it disappeared from day to day as people purchased books. But you had to walk past the stuff you thought you didn’t want to reach the stuff you thought you did. Thus, you could stumble on something you hadn’t set out for.”
On Browsing isn’t at the Rideau Indigo either. I found my copy at a bookstore.
UPDATE: A reader points out that this post is similar to one Ken Whyte wrote recently at SHuSH, his publishing newsletter. I don't believe I read Ken's post, though I'm a subscriber. Anyway, definitely read Ken's too. His has more information. Mine’s funnier. There's interesting news at the bottom of his post for my regular readers, about an ambitious project we’re working on together.
I'm vexed to have sent this out with Charlotte Gray's name misspelled. It's fixed now. Sorry, Charlotte!
I worked for Indigo for a long time as a part time worker JUST for the love of books. The pay was laughable. What this new direction is doing to the store is truly a tragedy in the bookstore landscape. Plainly put: it is short sighted and sucks large. Getting rid of the computers was possibly one of the stupidest moves made by Indigo (and there have been plenty of them recently)
You're right, staff are resisting but I have been told by coworkers who still work there that those who don't "fall in line" are suddenly faced with criticism and comments from higher ups about their work etc.
Indigo has certainly changed and definitely not for the better. Good thing Edmonton has at least two indie bookstores and a couple of good used bookstores. I used to go to Indigo strictly for the large selection of books, even after I left there. Now? the likelihood is they won't have what I want and their website and app are ridiculously clunky. I can't be bothered - if I wanted to go to a department store, I would hit up the Bay.