For Canada’s cultural nationalists, few businesses are as sacred as the book business. Last year, when Brennan College Services, a U.S. bookstore chain, struck a deal with the University of Ottawa to take over the campus bookstore, the federal government’s Foreign Investment Review Agency stepped in to block it. In response, the university entered into a marriage of convenience last month, establishing a new corporation called Ottawa-Brennan Inc., giving the foreign chain 49-per-cent ownership. FIRA approved the arrangement, but a group of students and faculty members began to boycott the new bookstore. Now the Canadian Booksellers Association (CBA), with the support of publishers’ associations, has turned the fight into a national campaign. The CBA says that the Brennan deal could not only open the door to an invasion by the three or four major U.S. book chains but threaten Canadian publishing as well. Said U of O sociology professor Frederick Caloren: “It is sad and shameful that a large, bilingual university in the nation’s capital has to bring in Americans to run its bookstore.”
On the Ottawa campus the protest is now shrouded in a sense of defeat. But the CBA has stepped up its campaign, lobbying the federal cabinet to reverse the FIRA decision and organizing an information blitz on campuses across Canada. Earlier this month it staged a three-day conference in Toronto, which resolved that no campus bookstore should lease its operation to a commercial chain. There are no campus leasing chains in Canada, and the Brennan deal marks their first entry into the country. Serge Lavoie, acting executive director of the CBA, said that the chains could hurt the Canadian book trade by paring down inventory as well as bypassing Canadian distributors of U.S. textbooks. The U of O has pledged to purchase books from Canadian sources
“where economically feasible,” but Lavoie predicted that Brennan will lean heavily on the contacts that its 32 U.S. stores use. Added Lavoie: “It is almost never financially advantageous to buy in Canada.”
The U.S. chains are clearly eager to establish themselves in Canada. Over the past six months they have been placing advertisements in trade magazines aimed at Canada’s 216 campus bookstores, which represent annual sales of $185 million. An editorial in a U.S. trade journal, College Store Executive, suggested that Canadians criticizing the chains “be forced to eat apple pie and hot dogs, watch baseball, drive a Chevrolet and listen to eight continuous hours of America the Beautiful.” Said Harald Bohne, general manager of the University of Toronto’s four retail outlets: “Universities are generally in a tight financial squeeze. This kind of offer will look attractive to many of them.” Bohne, who is also the director of the U of T Press, declared that the chains could hurt Canada’s academic publishing industry. Their usual policy, he said, is to strip a store’s inventory down to required textbooks and clear out slow-moving or “marginal” titles, which are often Canadian.
On the Ottawa campus Rector Roger Guindon said that there is no cause for alarm. He added, “If Canadian booksellers are too hungry and price themselves out of the market, that’s their problem.” Guindon’s main concern is to wipe out his bookstore’s $800,000 deficit. Although the battle for the U of O bookstore appears to be lost, Lavoie says he hopes that the CBA’s broader protest will “whip up the same kind of fervor” that greeted U.S. attempts to dominate the Canadian publishing industry in the late 1960s. Creating such a fervor, however, may be much more difficult in the more mercantile 1980s.
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