Renaud-Bray's Fairview gamble

Blurb: Pierre Renaud took a big risk opening a French-language bookstore in a predominantly English area. But the investment is paying off big time.

When Pierre Renaud was a youngster, his parents used to drive through the West Island, --then an almost exclusively anglophone enclave,-- on their way to the family cottage in Ile-Perrot. Decades later, memories of those days filled him with doubts during the lead-up to the August opening of Librairie Renaud-Bray's Fairview location.

"The West Island has changed a lot since then," said Renaud, the company's founder and president, during a recent tour of the 15,000 square-foot facilities. "But we are primarily a French language book-seller, and I wasn't sure that there would be enough demand here."

Renaud needn't have worried. The Fairview store, --the chain's 25th,-- has been a smash success, with sales during the initial weeks almost triple of what had been forecast.

The move was just one of a string of successes that Renaud has had, since leading the company through a painful re-structuring during the mid-1990s, following the company's disastrous foray in the Toronto market. During the past five years alone, sales at the chain, which employs between 800 and 1,000 people,-- depending on the season -- have almost doubled to a projected $98 million during the current fiscal year.

Much of the success has to do with Renaud himself. For example his timing of the Fairview store opening couldn't have been better, coming just weeks after Chapters.Indigo closed its SmithBooks store, which had been a pillar in the mall for years.

Although he is now in his 60s and celebrating his 40th anniversary in the trade, Renaud talks about books with boyish enthusiasm which turns to giddiness, when he checks out the unit sales of his favorite titles on the company's computerized cash registers.

Like Heather Reisman, Canada's other book retail mogul, Renaud takes a personal interest in which titles get high visibility shelf space in the chain's stores. A "Coup de Coeur," sticker on a new release, --which indicates Renaud's benediction, -- is an almost certain guarantor of best-seller status in the Quebec market.

Although Renaud and Reisman have a lot in common, they move in worlds of their own. Chapters.Indigo, which is a colossus in English Canada, is just a small player in Quebec's French language book community, which looks to France -rather than to English Canada -- for leadership.

"The Quebec book industry, is not as concentrated as it is in the rest of Canada, where Chapters.Indigo has more than half the market," said Yvon Lachance, president of the Association des Libraires Du Québec. "Here Renaud-Bray is the biggest player. But independents have a big role too."

Quebec's independent booksellers are helped by an unwritten industry convention which dictates that unit prices charged by publishers to booksellers are the same, regardless of the amount purchased. The practice prevents giants like Renaud-Bray, from using their buying power to initiate a price war.

Statistics are hard to come by, but Renaud estimates that about $450 million worth of retail and scholastic books are sold in Quebec each year, the vast majority of which are French titles. Internet booksellers have yet to make big inroads in the province.

According to Renaud, only about 10 per cent of the 2,500 new French titles that come out each month are from Quebec publishers, with the lion's share originating in France. However local releases comprise about 40 per cent of the titles that the company sells and they form about half of the best-seller list that the company produces each week.

"Quebecers love to read Quebec authors," said Renaud. "Our domestic book production industry has made incredible progress during past 15 years."

Renaud cites Janette Bertrand's recently released memoirs, "Ma Vie en Trois Actes," of which 150,000 copies have been printed, and television cooking personality Josée Di Stasio's cookbook, --which has 15,000 units in print-- as examples.

Renaud credits his success to the company's increasing focus on larger outlets located inside major malls as well as store design, ambiance and product selection as being the key factors driving the chain's success.

In recent years the company has also increasingly turned to non-book book products such as CDs, DVDs, games and giftware items to drive traffic into the stores, especially during the Christmas season. Renaud expects that Christmas will be especially good for the Fairview store, where gift sales have been especially strong.

The irony of a Quebec-based French language book retailer running Canada's dominant chain out of the West Island's flagship mall, couldn't be greater. But don't expect Renaud to venture into English language book-selling again anytime soon. Although he now laughs about the experience, memories of the Toronto debacle still clearly haunt him.

"We carry a few English best-seller titles as a service to our readers," Renaud said. "But for the next few years we're going to consolidate our gains here and concentrate on what we know."



Sidebar: Key dates at Renaud-Bray

o 1964: Pierre and Jean Renaud open a 3,500 square foot bookstore at 5219 Côte-des-Nieges
o 1966: Pierre Renaud merges his store with a competitor's to form Renaud-Bray
o 1971: Pierre Renaud buys out his partner
o 1978: Renaud-Bray becomes one of the world's first bookstores to computerize its inventory, which now includes 30,000 titles
o 1978-1993: Continued expansion including the opening of several new stores in high traffic locales.
o 1995-1996 Renaud-Bray opens a massive outlet on Toronto's Young St. and sees disastrous results almost immediately.
o 1996 Renaud-Bray enters bankruptcy protection.
o 1997-2004 slow and steady rebuilding which includes a doubling in revenues during the past five years.
o August 2004: Fairview store opens


Fact Box:
Company Name: Librarie Renaud-Bray
Controlling shareholders: Pierre Renaud, Jacques Floirat
Founded: 1964
Products: Books, CDs, DVDs, gifts
Employees: 800-1,000
Est. sales: $98 million
Phone #: 514-844-1781


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