This isn’t about a poorly formatted table of contents, but rather about a visit to Chapters bookstore last weekend. Chapters is the big bookstore chain in Canada – equivalent to Barnes and Noble in the U.S. or Waterstones in the U.K.. Until the on-line book revolution it was the place to go for books in Canada (unless you lived near a really good independent store or a campus bookstore).
So, our visit was on Saturday, at about noon. This was in the trendy Whyte Avenue area of Edmonton, near the University of Alberta, and the Strathcona Farmer’s Market. On a nice warm late summer Saturday, the area generally attracts tens of thousands of strollers and shoppers to the shops, restaurants and pubs. The day went according to form – plenty of people on the sidewalks and the Farmer’s Market was crowded.
But Chapters was dead. As I recall it from a few years back, it would have been packed with people at that time of the day on a Saturday. Not so anymore – I was the only person at the cash register lineup. And my purpose was to buy a mini-Kobo and gift card for an friend’s upcoming birthday, so that doesn’t bode well for Chapters’ future either. He may become a convert to the Amazon or Kobo online stores, once he has an e-reader.
Personally, I am somewhat conflicted about the trend, to which I am of course contributing as both a producer and a consumer. As a small e-book publisher, I can look at the demise of the big brick and mortar book stores as an opportunity for more business to come our way. It will shift people to e-books and thus could increase our sales. It will take away one of the main advantages of big publishers, which is physical access to bookstores, for paper books. That too, should help increase sales for independents, by leveling the playing field.
But it does sadden me somewhat as a book consumer, or at least in my nostalgia for being a bookstore consumer. Bookstores were one of the few businesses that I actually enjoyed patronizing (pubs and restaurants too, but thankfully Whyte Avenue will still have plenty of them). And, before books went online, Chapters had a decent selection. As stores went, the ambience was fairly pleasant – for a book lover, being surrounded by books pretty well guaranteed that to be true. And I have had a fair number of friends who worked in bookstores over the years, new and used, so I can feel for the employees too.
Turning to the business websites (Globe and Mail, September 3, 2013), I note that Chapters first quarter revenue declined year over year, from $187 million to $172 million, an 8% drop. Their operating loss went from $9.5 million to $21 million, an increase of 55%. The net loss was even worse, going from $5.5 million to $15 million, an increase of 175%. Clearly, business is not looking up, though stock analysts still report them as anywhere from “hold” to “buy”. I guess they aren’t exactly taking the long view. One wonders how long a business can carry on, with those kind of numbers. News from the U.S. is similar, where Barnes and Noble recently reported a similar drop in revenue (about nine percent).
So, it looks as if we might soon be closing the book on Chapters. It’s kind of sad, but I guess we can take heart, that it won’t be the end of books. Indeed, many more books are being published and distributed than ever before, including those published by Dodecahedron Books. To use a favorite literary phrase of Kurt Vonneget - so it goes.