Why the World's Biggest Bookstore is better off closed
When I was nineteen, I landed what I thought was the coolest job ever: bookseller at the World's Biggest Bookstore. Five years later, the job was a nightmare that was the trigger for depression which led me to leave two hours into my last shift, distraught and in tears. I couldn't return to the store for two years. When I heard the store was closing its doors, I breathed a sigh of relief because I'm really very glad the World's Biggest Bookstore is closing.
Yes, it's a beloved Toronto landmark and yes it's known for carrying that one book that none of the other Indigo stores have in stock. Yes, its bright yellow walls and quirky signage make it feel more casual and down-to-earth than the seemingly upscale Indigo stores. Yes, it's a pity that a great bookstore is going to be turned into a line of restaurants. However, for those who have worked at WBB in the last ten years, the store's closing comes as no surprise because a bookstore of that size was bound to fail.
Rumours circulated the entire time I worked there about the future of the store. Rumour always had it that Indigo's CEO, Heather Reisman, wouldn't agree to renew the lease for the store. The former Coles flagship store, the property was owned by the Cole family who make a tidy sum charging rent for the massive downtown location. However, running a bookstore (especially one of that size) is a losing venture in today's world of eBooks and digital magazines and the Cole family was wise to sell off the property.
I'm guessing the trouble really started when eBooks starting becoming a big thing. People were enamoured with the new technology and the ease of carrying around a library of books without the weight, but that meant that brick and mortar stores were becoming obsolete. While the United States saw the closing of Borders bookstores across the country, Canada fared better with many of the large format Chapters and Indigo stores remaining open. Reisman's attempts at diversification of products sold have thus far kept most of the stores in the chain from succumbing to the same fate. However, in the process, she has partially abandoned books.
While we had an impressive selection of books, magazines and DVDs, we couldn't say the same for our gift merchandise. In fact, when I started there we had no gift merchandise, but rather a clearance section where all the unsellable gift items from other Indigo stores came to die. This clearance section was the bane of everyone's existence because it was hell to keep tidy and there would always been customers who were dissatisfied with the heavy discount they were already getting and demand more.
When Reisman brought in more gift items to keep brick and mortar stores going, we started getting first hand merchandise as well as an attempt to prove to everyone that we could survive as a book and gift store. But the truth was, we couldn't.
Corporate was always on our case to sell more rewards cards and up-sell whatever promo item they were featuring, but always seemed to fail to realize that we weren't like the other stores in our chain. Many people didn't know that World's Biggest Bookstore was owned by Indigo and a lot of our regular customers came to us because we were so unlike the other stores in the chain, so they were all totally uninterested in an Indigo rewards card. Despite this, corporate held us up to the same standard as stores like Indigo Eaton Centre or Chapters Festival Hall - high traffic stores which never failed to do well.
As a result, our managers were under duress to improve sales and, as a result, inelegantly pushed cash supervisors to sell more rewards cards. Supervisors then put pressure on cashiers and even floor staff to push the rewards card, but no matter how hard we tried, we just couldn't be as good as the other Indigo stores. And still, we were pushed and pushed and pushed until we'd dread coming to work, especially on the days which were traditionally not busy. I myself took the pressure so personally that it became a burden I carried with me and which eventually led to a breakdown of sorts which resulted in my resignation.
To be honest, I never actually suspected that the company would decide to close the store down, regardless of the trouble we had keeping up. I always, naively, suspected that the company would finally realize that we were unlike their other cookie-cutter stores and would hold us to different, fairer standards. At the same time, having been under their regime for five years, I knew in my heart of hearts that the store would never be given the same love and attention as the other stores. We were the black sheep of the Indigo family, the odd man out. We were an embarrassment and it seemed like the company was going out of its way to make us fail just so they'd have a reason to shut us down.
We had a lease which expires this year and the question on all our lips was whether or not it would be renewed. Now we know the answer to that question and I'm glad it's come to this. We always referred to the World's Biggest Bookstore as Indigo's black sheep: the short, stout redheaded child in a family of tall blondes the store was more of a quirk than anything else. It was almost like Indigo's way of saying, "We can relate to the Everyman, as well!"
It was always my belief that if the bookstore should ever close, the building should be turned back into the bowling alley it used to be before Coles moved in. I was devastated to hear it might be turned into condos and felt only a bit better when it was revealed that a series of high end restaurants would take over the site. Perhaps the only comfort is my knowing that at least the location won't be housing a sad, deteriorating bookstore which was once, but is no longer, glorious.
Writing by Sarah Khan who is a former employee of the World's Biggest Bookstore where she spent five years. She now works as a freelance writer. Follow her on Twitter @sarathofkhan. Photo by Roaming the World in the blogTO Flickr pool.
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