The Bookstore is Back: Heather Reisman on Indigo’s Return to Robson Street
"I never wanted to leave Robson."
November 2, 2018
Indigo returned to Robson Street this week, taking over the former Forever 21 spot between Burrard and Thurlow. Two floors, 30,000 square feet and 65,000 titles—it’s good to have a bookstore back downtown. It’s also very firmly in Indigo’s newer model of a shop-within-shop design, where wellness books are accompanied with meditation accoutrements, cookbooks with dinnerware, kids books with toys and games.
I chatted with Indigo CEO Heather Reisman on the eve of the store’s grand opening about their return to Robson, and how their brand of “cultural department store” works.
AQ: Why are you back on Robson and why did you leave Robson in the first place?
Heather Resiman: I never wanted to leave Robson and we, Indigo, never wanted to leave Robson. The original Chapters on Robson is about 30,000 square feet, which is just about the perfect size for what we want to do, historically and now. When Chapters was owned by a different company, when they heard that Indigo was coming to Vancouver, they thought the way to sustain their position was to make it even bigger, which is an understandable thought. And so they took another 20,000 square feet and suddenly you had 51,000 square feet. As time went by and we knew the store was going to need a reinvention, it was so big and a bit of an awkward space. And then we heard that they were doubling the rent. And we thought, we just can’t sustain it.
But it was with such a heavy heart. I came here, we had a big event, we had all our customers, we were sad. Then we got the call that this space was available, and I thought, that’s my dream space.
Everything about this space felt right. It didn’t quite look like this. It was a Forever 21. I could sense what we could do, we got lucky. We’re so glad to be back. There’s so much about Vancouver frankly that connects for us with what we feel as a company. It’s a big deal.
What is it about Vancouver that connects with the company?
First of all, Vancouver is a reading city. And we have evolved different areas of the store to make books the beginning, whether it’s wellness or it’s food, or it’s interest in the environment. Those areas which are very important to us as a company, central values that I hold. For me I feel like they resonate with the way you live in Vancouver and in British Columbia.
You’ve said you’re reimagining Indigo stores – what does that look like?
These stores are now designed for the conversation, the larger conversation. Cooking becomes Joy of the Table. Health becomes the Wellness Shop. There’s A Room of Her Own. We’ve got a new approach to kids. The whole way that we’re integrating product and books in certain categories. The section on art is a whole installation. I call it a conversation between the words in the book and where we as people are. We, meaning all of us, in our journey.
Do you have a percentage breakdown in terms of books vs lifestyle?
We’re probably now 60 percent books, 40 percent lifestyle.
And how are books doing these days?
Interestingly enough, physical books are actually holding their own. Of course some of the sales have gone online. That means the store has to be more than just books—frankly books-only would be a challenge. But physical books are holding up. They’re about flat, so they’re not growing, but it’s pretty nice to be holding flat.
What’s interesting – young people are reading physical books. It’s almost as if they intuitively can sense that there’s just so much screen time they can handle, and there’s something intrinsic about physical books. We’re just about to launch a program with a woman named Maryanne Wolfe, who’s a world-renowned researcher with children and reading. There’s pretty significant research that confirms the importance of embedding physical reading with kids as the first part of the journey.
Kids’ books are growing, and so are cookbooks! Cookbooks are up 14 percent this year. Maybe I’m romantic about this, which is possible, but I think the table is that place to connect, put your technology away, experience food, talk about things, create some beauty. And I think it is really an intrinsic desire for that. “Eat real food” is our whole mantra.
You’ve included a pretty large art installation in the store.
It’s very near and dear to me and I’m hoping it will be very near and dear to people in this community. These installations, they’re actual photographs installed by Ed Burtynsky. It was a collaborative project between Ed and me—they’re two of Ed’s photographs of the ancient forests of Vancouver Island.
The idea of this installation is we’re hoping that people experience them and if they’re interested, support the Ancient Forest Alliance. The Ancient Forest Alliance is lobbying to not have the last three percent of these trees cut down.
How did this come together?
Ed and I are old friends. I collect his art, I supported the creation of Anthropocene, his new documentary. I was up at his studio one day, and this was on the wall, and I was just like – gasp! I said to him, listen, I have these two incredible walls in Vancouver. We could not afford to do these if he charged what they would be worth. So we came together. He said if I made a big donation to the Alliance, which I’ve done—$25,000 today—he’d also donate $25,000. We worked out something where we would do this installation for 3 years. We’re paying for it, but not nearly what it would be.
That’s the idea—that the store can be a canvas for art communication.