Indigo Books & Music is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year with a special collection of 28 limited-edition books published in September featuring important titles from the past quarter century. The collection includes CanLit classics such as Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s TaleLawrence Hill nigger bookThomas Kings annoying indianAlice Munro The lives of girls and womenand Michael Ondaatje English patient; National non-fiction favorites, such as Chris Hadfield An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth And the Ur: my story by Bobby Orr; And a selection of contemporary songs like Anthony Doerr All the light you can’t seeRuby Kor milk and honeyTara and Westover learner. All cartoon bound books feature the Library’s trademark blue wraparound sheets with covers created by emerging Canadian artists.
“Nineteen are Canadian books, fifteen are fiction, and the other half are by BIPOC,” says Rania Al Husseini, Senior Vice President of Print Books at Indigo. Husseini, like many Toronto residents, is foreign-born. Originally from Palestine, she immigrated to Canada when she was 16 and eventually joined Indigo, working her way through chain stores Coles, Chapters and Indigo into her position today. The experience of being a young immigrant working in bookshops informs her purchasing philosophy. “When I first walked into a bookstore, I didn’t find myself represented in the books,” she says. “Now, I want to raise underrepresented voices — whether they are Indigenous, Black, Asian, BIPOC, or LGBTQ — so that everyone who comes into one of our stores from any community sees themselves in the books on the shelves.”
In an additional effort to make the Indigo shopping experience more comprehensive, the books should also be purchasable. For this reason, all Anniversary Editions are priced at C$28, which is a relatively low price for a hardcover in Canada today. “With the prices of some cardboard-bound books now going up to C$50 due to inflation, we feel that the C$28 price tag provides customers with great value,” says Al-Hussaini. The print run will be 4,000 to 6,000 copies, and a total of 115,000 units of limited editions will hit shelves. “When they leave, they leave,” she adds.
Another important aspect of the selection is that the 19 books are Heather’s Anthology – titles that have been personally selected in the past by Indigo founder and CEO Heather Raisman for in-store promotion. Often the Reisman pass gives instant bestseller status on the book, which then continues to sell for much longer than it normally would. “She only picks books that she personally likes, and when she chooses a book, it makes a difference and really expands sales,” Al-Hussaini says.
Al-Hussaini describes Raisman as an “incredible leader” – someone who is “absolutely committed to Canadian books, culture, and reading.” Early in the pandemic, Raisman lobbied the Canadian government to consider books an “essential” good, saying at the time that “reading is essential to the soul.”
This point about Reisman’s commitment to Canadian books is important, because if there’s one problem the store often encounters, Husseini says, it’s that customers sometimes don’t view it as Canadian, despite the fact that Indigo has 88 supermarkets ( Under the names Chapters and Indigo) and 84 convenience stores (under the names Coles and Indigospirit), it employs about 5,000 people across Canada, and has no competitor of even the same size. Yes, there is one Nile outpost in the US — in Short Hills, New Jersey — but no further plans have been announced to expand beyond that location, which “provides tremendous visibility for clients,” Husseini says.
Over the past decade, the chain has gone through a bit of reinvention, adding a slew of sidelines that range from beauty products and yoga mats to mugs and pillows. Of course, Al-Husseini says, the focus is on books, which represent about 60% of total revenue. “We are particularly committed to working with smaller, independent Canadian publishers, many of whom are local to their communities. We want to stock our stores, so that customers will feel when they enter that the books have been specially selected for them.”
However, if customers don’t find an address that speaks to them, they can order from a selection of the 15 million addresses available on the Indigo website, which is set to launch in full this fall. “The most important thing we did was update it to ONIX 3.0,” Al-Husseini says, referring to the digital indexing and metadata standard. Additionally, the redesign will provide more opportunities for the store to talk about books and merchandise products in ways that connect with readers. For example, popular books on TikTok can be front and center.
Last year, Peter Royce was named president of Indigo, and on September 5 he was named CEO, succeeding Reisman. Ruis, who is British, has 30 years of experience in retail, having helped turn several businesses, including Anthropologie and UK luxury department store John Lewis.
Indigo has begun celebrating its anniversary as it begins to fully recover from the impact of the pandemic. Sales for the fiscal year ending April 2 were up 17% from fiscal 2021, to C$1.06 billion (about $800 million). The chain also reported an operating profit of C$29 million, compared to a loss of C$31.9 million in fiscal 2021. Indigo’s online business cushioned the financial blow when stores had to close their doors to customers, but in fiscal 2022, sales through increased Supermarkets increased 35% to C$595.5 million, while convenience store sales increased 29% to C$93.1 million. Gains in 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 turning into high gear.
Indigo adopted its holistic approach to retail years ago, and the move continues to deliver benefits. The retailer said it has seen a change in consumer behavior over the course of the pandemic, as consumers increasingly begin the discovery process on its digital platform and purchase books or other items in one of its stores.
For the future, Husseini says the series’ mission is simple: to offer the widest variety of books to the widest audience, raise underrepresented voices, and foster inspiration and communication among readers. Al-Hussaini says that Indigo’s philosophy stems from one question per customer: “How can we be a place where they can find inspiration and connect?” Next, the store strives to offer something more profound: “a sense of purpose and joy.”
A version of this article appeared in the 09/26/2022 issue of Publishers Weekly Themed: Indigo Books celebrates 25 years