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“The days of just browsing bookshelves are behind us”: A Q&A with Indigo CEO Peter Ruis

The book behemoth’s new leader has plans—some big, some small, some weird—to restore profitability. The multimillion-dollar question: Will they work?

"The days of just browsing bookshelves are behind us": A Q&A with Indigo CEO Peter Ruis
Photo by Kayla Rocca

One perk of running Canada’s largest book retailer must be the endless reads. So what’s on your nightstand? I’ve got the biography of Edward Enninful, the Ghana-born editor who changed everything at British Vogue. Then there’s the novel Trust, which my staff say is going to be the hot new thing.

Former CEO Heather Reisman, now Indigo’s executive chair, developed a cult following with Heather’s Picks. Can we look forward to Peter’s Picks? I don’t think so, but we’re curating for our customers more than ever. Say you buy a music book—we could suggest some vinyl too. It’s about meeting the needs of diverse patrons. The days of just browsing the shelves are behind us.

Why is that? Indigo has roughly 15 million titles. Increasingly—and this has become big with people sharing favourites on TikTok—you see a lot of hype around books that were printed many years ago, which almost never happened in the past. One of our bestsellers last year was 2011’s The Song of Achilles. It got that viral push, and then we created a special-­edition cover.

Curating seems like a lot of work. Can’t you get an algorithm to do it? Customers can detect authenticity. We have a team of readers who go through about 200 books every week to decide what to promote or recommend. Everyone has that friend with the best book recommendations, and Indigo wants to be that friend.

You started in 2021 as president. Was the succession already decided? Yes, it was always the plan to have me get to know the business and then become CEO.

What made you right for the job? I love building companies that will be relevant in the future. People have talked about the death of books for 50 years, but it hasn’t happened. Our online sales doubled during the pandemic. In terms of my fit, I have a strong point of view on the expansion of our brand, which was origin­ally just books and music, and then stationery and toys. Now we have personalized offerings across all merchandise, which is my background as a former executive at other consumer brands.

Indigo started selling vibrators in 2020. Is this an example of what you mean by “personalized”? Bookstores are about ideas, mainstream or not. Sexual wellness is an extension of that. In the ’70s, before sex ed was widely taught in schools, parents came to bookstores for guidance on “the talk.” We want to promote what we believe in. We’ve also launched a campaign asking Canadian icons to pick three things that define them. Margaret Atwood chose: “writer,” “advocate” and “birdwatcher.”

Well, now I need to know your three things. I chose “father,” “traveller” and “cricketer.” For me, cricket is less a sport and more a religion. It’s hard to explain its beauty to North Americans. However, I will say that I started getting into basketball. I’ve enjoyed going to see Raptors games.

You came here from London. Does Toronto feel like home yet? I live by the water, and the area was eerily empty when I arrived in 2021. This year, it was nice to see people piling onto the ferry again. My kids are at university and my wife is in the UK. I pop back to London once a month, and they visit here. This summer, we had a lovely holiday in the Maritimes.

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Indigo is launching a new store early next year at Front and Spadina. What makes it special? It’s a concept store that’s part of The Well, one of the largest develop­ments in Canada. We want people to come and enjoy themselves. The music section will have listening booths, like record stores in the ’50s. We’re also bringing in a variety of new coffees and small, local retailers—a little bit more individuality on offer.

I started with your nightstand. What about desert-island books? I’d have to say The Great Gatsby and 1984. One is escapism, and the other is more relevant than ever. Also The Bonfire of the Vanities and The Secret History. I go back to those again and again. I know, they feel clichéd because a lot of people love those books.

Sounds like your genre is rich people behaving badly. Ha! Looking back, those were titles that captured a moment and got people talking. That’s what I love. There is this false notion that books that win awards are pretentious or inaccessible, but these are just great stories that reflect our world.


This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

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