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Heather Reisman marks Indigo comeback with new store following leadership turmoil

TORONTO — Strolling between rows of books and a seemingly endless array of other wares at Indigo Books and Music Inc.’s newest store in Toronto’s The Well building on Thursday, Heather Reisman is in her element.
Heather Reisman, Indigo's CEO, is photographed at the retailer's new location in Toronto, on Thursday, Oct. 26, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

TORONTO — Strolling between rows of books and a seemingly endless array of other wares at Indigo Books and Music Inc.’s newest store in Toronto’s The Well building on Thursday, Heather Reisman is in her element.

She admires art from local customers that hangs atop the store's stationery section, toggles a jukebox to play Bette Midler's 1990 hit "From a Distance" and fantasizes about dedicating space in the kids' section for arts and crafts.

"We're going to get a big tarp and put it over this," she said, motioning staff toward a giant wood table during a media tour the day before the location is set to open.

"So kids can paint and do stuff on here … That's what I do at home."

Having operated 171 stores in her company’s 27 years in business, the jaunt around the Well location may seem unremarkable but for Reisman, it’s the first stage of a comeback — for herself and her beloved empire.

It wasn’t long ago that Reisman gave up control of the Toronto-based bookstore she started in 1996, which she expanded into a lifestyle retailer where you can buy sex toys, wooden bed frames, cast iron dutch ovens and collagen powder. 

Reisman had served as chief executive of Indigo until last year, when Peter Ruis, a retail executive with experience at John Lewis, Anthropologie and Jigsaw, took over. Reisman left the business’s board in August, calling the move to retire “one of the toughest decisions a founder must make.”

Her departure followed a February cyberattack that downed Indigo’s website and hampered sales for weeks.

Four of Indigo's 10 directors later left the board, with Dr. Chika Stacy Oriuwa attributing her resignation to a “loss of confidence in board leadership” and “mistreatment.” Indigo never elaborated on Oriuwa’s allegations. 

The leadership changes didn’t stop there. Ruis resigned at the start of September, offering no reason to the public for his departure, and Andrea Limbardi, Indigo's president and a 21-year employee of the company, announced in a LinkedIn post around the same time she was leaving to take the helm of apparel business Reitmans Canada Ltd.

Few were surprised when Reisman was promptly named Ruis’s replacement, but just over a month into her latest tenure, the maven doesn't want to talk about the transition or what came before it.

Asked Thursday about what changes she may have made internally and Oriuwa's "mistreatment" allegation, she said, "All I would say is this: You're all journalists, do you believe everything you read? And that's all I want to say about that.

"I will not comment any more," she continued. 

"I think your determination of things should come from what you hear and just hell no, do we believe everything we read."

She also avoided questions about how her predecessor's vision for the Well store may have differed from her own.

Asked what changes she made, Reisman said, "I know where you want to go, I'm not going there."

The location in question was meant to be Ruis’s crowning glory, a 16,000-square-foot “cultural emporium.”

In August, he told The Canadian Press the store would allow shoppers to snack on pastries, coffee, beer and wine served from a blue Citroën truck from the 1950s by the shop’s entrance and browse nooks dedicated to home fragrances, plants and popular Japanese graphic novels known as Manga.

Also on hand would be a listening booth and jukebox, 1980s pinball and Pac-Man machines.

While Reisman retained many of the elements Ruis had planned, the plants, pinball and Pac-Man machines are nowhere to be found a day before opening. An art installation by Canadian artist Kent Monkman is coming soon.

"I've never built a store that at the end, we didn't come in and say, 'Oh, we missed it on this or we missed it on that,'" Reisman said. "It is a process."

One glance at the store shows books are meant to reign supreme. They're front and centre when customers step in the door and still dear to Reisman's heart, no matter how much her company has expanded.

She said she has all 10,000 books she ever owned, including stacks she amassed through the Book of the Month Club she saved up her allowance to buy as a kid.

Joanne McNeish, a Toronto Metropolitan University professor specializing in marketing, feels Reisman's approach has been wise.

"The introduction of lifestyle products to augment sales has never been at the expense of the book business," she wrote in an email.

The assortment works because many of the items are book adjacent and though some may be unplanned purchases, they're easy to carry home, make good gifts and accounted for 44 per cent of Indigo's revenue this year, McNeish added.

Maintaining the delicate balance between making books the star but ensuring the company keeps growing through adjacent products and new categories will be a top task for Reisman.

But for now, all she wants is people to walk into her new store and feel they've found their "happy place."

"If they will say that, I'm a happy camper."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 26, 2023.

Companies in this story: (TSX:IDG)

Tara Deschamps, The Canadian Press