The colony of Indigo: Opinion: A former bookseller takes aim at the mega- deal

How is it that, after four decades of a diverse and flourishing literary culture in Canada with a healthy network of independent booksellers, the country is now a consumer colony for a single Toronto-based book-retail monopoly, Indigo! Books and Music Inc.?

The unchecked aggrandizement of multinational publishing, distribution and retail corporations has led to a concentration of power in the hands of fewer and ever more ruthless individuals. But the terrifying implications of Indigo’s domination of the distribution of cultural and intellectual materials in Canada passes largely unremarked, and one publisher even suggests that “it will stabilize the Canadian book industry.” Any outcry about disappearing local bookstores is seen as nothing but nostalgia.

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Who now remembers the old wisdom about not putting all one’s eggs in one basket? True, the Competition Bureau is investigating Indigo’s takeover of Chapters Inc., but does anyone expect that, with such powerful friends in government, it will be overturned? Not likely. Jean ChrAtien was among the first to phone and congratulate Indigo’s Heather Reisman.

Heritage Canada has a program to support Canadian publishers, many of whom have been receiving tattered unsold books in lieu of payment from Chapters for

some time. No doubt there will be more desperate pleas from the publishers for assistance when, as I expect, it is discovered that Chapters is in much worse shape than anyone thought and the turnaround will take much longer. Ironically, nobody — neither Heritage Canada nor provincial or municipal governments — came forward with offers of help to independent bookstores when they were desperate, although it is these independent bookstores whose passion and knowledge helped create the Canadian book industry.

The predatory practices so much in vogue nowadays were anathema to most independent booksellers. Chapters had no such qualms; for boss Larry Stevenson and his people, bookselling was a military campaign. Their take-no-prisoners business plan crushed many independents and secured market domination. But even with that, they continued to lose money in their stores, online operation and wholesale division.

There were early warning signs about Reisman with her first foray into the book world: her attempt to bring Borders Group Inc., a large American retailer, into Canada. Fortunately, though laws for the protection of Canadian culture are almost toothless, Industry Canada turned her down. So, in what was seen in the trade as a fit of pique, she opened Indigo. At the time, people were just relieved to have some competition for Chapters.

Last month, the country briefly faced the truly horrifying spectre of a single national bookstore chain, “FutureStuff,” selling Palm hand-helds and DVDs and books on the side. Now, without a whimper and with the usual “cautious optimism,” Canadians acquiesce to the cultural dictatorship of a corporation that hasn’t so far been particularly successful and is clearly just as happy to sell shawls and champagne flutes as books. And because books will be the least profitable part of Reisman’s “cultural department store,” they may well get lost in her fictional woods.

But maybe this will be good news for the remaining independent bookstores. For consumers, the competition between Chapters and Indigo has been a boon, but they may find that the sale is now over. With little competition, there is no reason for Indigo to continue to offer discounts. Furthermore, it is unlikely that readers will find regional interests well served by the chain’s Toronto buyers.

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Writers and publishers must now walk on eggshells. Who dares to say anything negative about Indigo? It would be suicide. The possibilities of market censorship and market chill are real. (And if I ever write a book, I’ll be sure to publish it under a pseudonym.)

We should have read Indigo’s motto more carefully — “The world needs more Canada,” a sentiment that, apart from the awkward grammar, really means: now Canada has more Indigo and Indigo has more Canada. And, within a few years, “the world will have more Canada” — when the chain is sold, at a discount, to Borders or Barnes & Noble or Amazon.com.

Celia Duthie was president of Vancouver’s independent Duthie Books from 1984 to 1999. She now lives with her family on Galiano Island in the Gulf of Georgia.