Kingston’s Novel Idea: A Bookstore-Survivor in Canada

In Feature Articles by Carla Douglas14 Comments

‘The day that Indigo opened, our business went down 40 percent,’ says bookseller Oscar Malan. Sixteen years later, the big-chain store would close up and leave.

The independent bookstore Novel Idea opened in Kingston, Ontario, in 1988.

Echoes of Mad Magazine’s Alfred E. Neuman: ‘Quid, Me Anxiari?’  is bookseller Oscar Malan’s Latin translation of ‘What, Me Worry?’ And, after getting through a major-chain showdown, Malan is selling more and worrying less. He and his wife Joanna’s shop, Novel Idea in Kingston, outlasted the competition of Indigo Chapters for 16 years. The day the first big store opened, Malan says, ‘our business went down 40 percent.’ —Porter Anderson


By Carla Douglas | @CarlaJDouglas

‘A Tremendous Opportunity for Service’
As is well known, the changing nature of book sales and the rise of Amazon and other online retailers have been especially challenging for independent brick-and-mortar bookstores. Many didn’t survive.

“Independent bookstores are in a better position to survive in the face of online competition. It’s a tremendous opportunity for service.”Oscar Malan

But Novel Idea, in Kingston, Ontario, is one that has managed to prevail against heavy competition and see off a national chain’s effort to gain local traction.

A quick timeline here for background:

  • When it opened in 1988, Novel Idea was one of about five independent bookstores in downtown Kingston, a small city halfway between Toronto and Montreal.
  • In 1997, Indigo opened its second store—the first was in Burlington, Ontario—just a few blocks up the street from Novel Idea.
  • By the following year, Chapters—a new retailer formed in the 1995 merger of SmithBooks and Coles—was opening large-format bookstores. Chapters Online would be created in 1998.
  • In 2001, Indigo and Chapters officially merged, to become Canada’s largest book retailer, Indigo Books & Music Inc.
  • And in 2013, after 15 years, Indigo Chapters retreated—it closed its downtown store in Kingston. Novel Idea had survived.

Publishing Perspectives asked Novel Idea’s owner, Oscar Malan, to talk about the experience of seeing the big chain enter and later leave the local market.

‘A Shift in the Nature of Retail’

The front desk at Kingston’s Novel Idea bookstore

Publishing Perspectives: What was your situation before Indigo launched in Kingston in 1997?

“Because we’re in the book business, we think it’s about books. But it’s not just books, it’s everything.”Oscar Malan

Oscar Malan: Between Kingston and Ottawa, there were about 25 bookstores, four or five of them in Kingston. Now most of them are gone. But what we went through isn’t about the book business. It’s about a shift in the nature of retail.

In the 1990s, there was an explosion of big box stores, and malls took a real hit. It affected every kind of business. Because we’re in the book business, we think it’s about books [when such scenarios occur]. But it’s not just books, it’s everything.

Now there’s another shift occurring—box stores are in trouble because of online sales. But boutiques and independent bookstores are in a better position to survive in the face of online competition. It’s a tremendous opportunity for service.

Box stores are hopeless at service. Where we can’t compete on price, we’re all over online retailers in service.

PP: Did Indigo’s opening have an immediate impact on sales?

OM: The day that Indigo opened, our business went down 40 percent. And when Chapters opened the following year, it went down another 10 percent.

PP: What was it, do you think, that helped you hang on?

“It’s extremely helpful to be good at it, but it’s also extremely helpful to be lucky.”Oscar Malan

OM: Of course we did all the usual things you do when this happens. Strategizing, saving money, cutting back on payroll. What saved us was our location—and we were pretty reasonably financed to begin with to weather the initial storm.

PP: Your downtown location?

OM: Yes, our corner location. And basically, dumb luck. Because it’s one thing to say, “Oh, we’re really good at it.”

I’m not saying that we’re not, but there were plenty of people who were really good at it [bookselling] who didn’t survive.

It’s extremely helpful to be good at it, but it’s also extremely helpful to be lucky. Basically, we can’t take it personally. This is the way it’s going.

PP: Are there other things? What about the market? There’s a bundle of things that go into the service aspect of the business.

OM: Yes, we’re in a good market. And there’s the community—it helps to be part of the community and taking advantage of what’s going on, knowing the local authors. We do launches and readings in-store and at other venues, and of course the festivals. We’ll do a launch for anyone who asks. I don’t always seek them out, but I don’t say no, either.

When Amazon came on board, I was worried. But then I realized that people weren’t flocking to Amazon for the price—it was for the convenience.

‘What, Me Worry?’

Oscar Malan’s motto for his bookstore, Novel Idea, is a Latin translation of ‘What, Me Worry?’

PP: Does customer loyalty play a role? Are people loyal to bookstores because the product is books?

“We’re selling much more genre fiction since Indigo closed…And I sell an astonishing amount more to young readers. Lots and lots of YA.”Oscar Malan

OM: In a general way, I think it’s the nature of retail. But in a more specific way, I think the boutique nature of an independent bookstore is attractive to a greater number of people.

To go back to the analogy of appliances: if you need an appliance, you go to an appliance store. But very, very few people like to wander and browse through an appliance store, where bookstores have that kind of comfort zone.

The day Indigo closed its doors, our business went up 40 percent, almost exactly. And we could tell from the very first weekend. I came in on the Monday after the weekend Indigo closed, and I said, “Whoa. We had a great weekend.” And that was the beginning.

PP: And you’re the only bookstore left downtown. Can you speculate on why they closed? Was it that there wasn’t room for two bookstores on the main street?

OM: Yes, exactly. And I suspect it had to do with lease arrangements and square-foot costs, that sort of thing.  Indigo’s lease was up. And [because of the Chapters-Indigo merger] they’d two locations. One had parking, the other didn’t. That sort of thing.

PP: Were you surprised when they moved out?

“The day Indigo closed its doors, our business went up 40 percent, almost exactly. And we could tell from the very first weekend.”Oscar Malan

OM: Yes and no. I had thought they might move out five years earlier, after their 10-year lease expired. That’s what I was hoping. And when that didn’t happen, we just carried on. It was a struggle. I can’t say it wasn’t. But other opportunities arrived. WritersFest was a big one. [More from Publishing Perspectives on Kingston WritersFest and other Canadian festivals is here.]

PP: And after they closed, were there noticeable changes?

OM: Oh, yes. We’re selling much more genre fiction since Indigo closed. A lot of Clive Cussler and James Patterson—it hasn’t become a huge part, but we’re selling more.

And I sell an astonishing amount more to young readers. Lots and lots of YA. They weren’t coming to me. They were going to the mall, and they were going to Indigo. 

Oscar and Joanna Malan at Kingston WritersFest

About the Author

Carla Douglas

Carla Douglas is a writer and editor, and most recently is the author of You’ve Got Style: A Writer’s Guide to Copyediting. She was a contributing researcher for the first edition of The Oxford Guide to Canadian English Usage, and is co-author of the Don’t Panic series of literacy resources for high school students.

Comments

  1. Novel Idea is an important part of our community. It’s a wonderful store with very helpful staff!

  2. Lovely to see you both in the photo and to read this article, thanks to Laurie. Good on you for riding the rollercoaster and hanging on tight!

  3. Thank goodness for Novel Idea! This where we buy all our books. And we do buy a few books…

  4. The Novel Idea has always stood for quality. That it has outlasted the big chains more interested in profit than principle is a testament to –well, to something good, in Oscar and Joanna, and in Kingston itself. Nice to see it’s still there.

  5. As a local author I appreciate what Novel Idea offers. I am with a national publisher and whenever my publisher releases one of my new books my first book signing is always at Novel Idea. Already booked for a new release with Oscar in June. Novel Idea may be small but it thinks big.

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