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Indigo, Penguin Random House want Ontario to deem bookstores essential

TORONTO — Two of the Canadian literary industry's biggest brands are calling on the Ontario government to designate bookstores as essential services — even as COVID-19 cases continue to surge. Retailer Indigo Books & Music Inc.

TORONTO — Two of the Canadian literary industry's biggest brands are calling on the Ontario government to designate bookstores as essential services — even as COVID-19 cases continue to surge.

Retailer Indigo Books & Music Inc. and publisher Penguin Random House Canada both say bookstores should be allowed to remain open as COVID-19 restrictions are tightened because they provide resources that educate and contribute positively to communities coping with the pandemic.

"A shut down of physical bookstores would have serious consequences on the well-being of Canadians young and old, as well as the livelihood of authors and booksellers, across the country," Indigo said in a statement to The Canadian Press.

Penguin Random House Canada chief executive Kristin Cochrane echoed those statements in a letter she wrote to Ontario Premier Doug Ford, where she argued that the combination of low margins and high postal and distribution costs mean online sales are not a viable option for most bookstores during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Online retailers alone do not have the supply chain capacity to service the book business in Ontario without severely underserving many readers and communities, as we saw during the first wave of the pandemic, when books were deprioritized," she said. 

"Nor can the books category be left in the hands of online retailers without serious impact on the reach of Canadian stories, authors, illustrators, and voices — and the long-standing vibrancy and diversity of our retail ecosystem."

The joint call to designate bookstores as essential comes as new daily COVID-19 cases have been hovering well above the 1,000 mark in Ontario for weeks and the province has been warning of further restrictions to come.

The premier's office wouldn't comment on the matter, but directed The Canadian Press to remarks Ford made Friday as he introduced mandatory lockdowns in Toronto and Peel. 

The lockdowns come into effect on Monday and will force all non-essential retailers in those regions to close their doors, but allow them to offer curbside pickup.

"If you are shopping online I know it can be easy to go with Amazon, but please remember you can get the exact same product from local stores," he said. "Please buy through local stores."

Flying Books, a Toronto book retailer and publisher that operates within other stores, was hoping the premier would heed the advice of the literary giants because its owner Martha Sharpe feels independent bookstores have been diligent with COVID-19 protocols. 

"These are like the benevolent nerds of the world, so they are going to be extremely careful," she said.

She said she's seen how squeezed small bookstores have been during the pandemic as they try to keep up with changing restrictions or start e-commerce businesses.

Cochrane said Increasing labour costs, rising commercial rents and competition from online retailers who operate at a scale and with a cost structure that independent and national retailers cannot rival are hurting booksellers. 

Many have long relied on in-person book launches and events to quell some of the impacts on online retailers like Inc., but the pandemic has destroyed that revenue avenue, she said.

While Indigo said its push for essential designation would help independent booksellers and publishers, the company would benefit, too.

Being allowed to stay open could offer some relief for Indigo, which has seen decreased foot traffic and sales during the pandemic.

So many people have stayed home and put off purchases that the Toronto-based retailer reported a net loss of $17.5 million or 63 cents per share in its latest quarter, compared with $20.5 million or 74 cents per share for the same period last year. 

The company did not report same-store sales for online and retail stores, a key metric in the retail sector, that quarter.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 20, 2020.

Companies in this story: (TSX:IDG)

Tara Deschamps, The Canadian Press

Note to readers: RECASTS para 18 to show Indigo losses for latest quarter. Previous version had figures for Q4.

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