Coles (bookstore)

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For other uses, see Coles (disambiguation).
Industry Retail
Founded 1940, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Area served
most of Canada
Products Books
Parent Indigo Books and Music

Coles is a Canadian bookstore chain owned by Indigo Books and Music. Coles currently serves as Indigo's brand for small-scale bookstores in locations such as shopping malls. Some locations are operated as SmithBooks, and the company has recently begun to open selected small-format locations as "IndigoSpirit".[1]


A Coles store in Vaughan Mills in November 2013

In 1940, two brothers, Carl Cole and Jack Cole, opened their first bookstore on Bloor Street near Spadina Avenue near the University of Toronto.[2] Prior to opening the store they had operated a "pushcart," buying up textbooks at the end of the school year and reselling them in the fall.

At the age of 11, the Coles were living in foster homes in Detroit and eventually Toronto.[citation needed] With the little amount of money they had, they were able to open their first store (paying rent daily as they could not afford the monthly rent payments).[citation needed] With no retail experience, the Cole brothers turned their store into what was once Canada's largest bookstore chain.

Jack and Carl Cole are also responsible for inventing Coles Notes.[3] Coles Notes began when students at a local high school were having trouble translating a French paper.[4][5] Jack and Carl hired someone to translate the book and sold over 1,000 copies. The original Coles Notes were typed up by Mrs. Alcorn, and produced by mimeograph machine.[citation needed] (Mrs. Alcorn stayed with Coles Bookstores as long as it remained in the hands of the Coles brothers.) Coles Notes have sold over 80,000,000 copies worldwide, and served as the foundation for the similar Cliffs Notes which are published in the U.S.

Jack Cole was an avid collector of Canadian books, and in the late 1960s started reprinting affordable, paperbound facsimile editions of scarce and rare Canadian history titles, such as George M. Grant's Ocean to Ocean: Sandford Fleming's expedition through Canada in 1872. Previous to the Cole's edition a history buff or student either had to pay a premium for the original edition if it could be found, have access to the rare book collection at a major library, or buy an expensive limited-edition reprint from one a historical society or university press.

Not missing a trick, the Coles established ownership of critical trade names by establishing and registering their use in Canada. They published books under the banner of Waldenbooks, so when K-Mart wanted to introduce their captive book chain into Canada, they found that "Waldenbooks" was already registered and in use.[6] K-Mart was free to set up bookstores, just not Waldenbooks. They followed a similar ploy by having stores do business under the "Borders" name, as a blocking move.

In addition to the flagship brand, known for many years as "Coles - the Book People!", the company operated the self-proclaimed World's Biggest Bookstore in downtown Toronto,[7] as well as two other bookstore banners, Active Minds and The Book Company.[8]

In 1978, Jack and Carl sold Coles to Southam Inc.[9] In April 1995, Southam resold the company to Pathfinder Capital, which one year earlier had acquired Coles' main rival, SmithBooks.[10][11] That chain consisted of the former Canadian operations of British bookstore chain W H Smith (1950-1989), which had first been sold to Canadian owners in 1989.[2][8]

The merged company, Chapters Inc., opened Canada's first two book superstores under the "Chapters" brand in November 1995. The smaller-format bookstores retained their existing names, but over time many of these locations have been converted to the Coles banner. A handful of SmithBooks stores continue to operate as of late 2008, but even in these cases staff uniforms and shopping bags bear the "Coles" name.

Indigo purchased Chapters, and in turn Coles, in 2001.[12] A number of Coles locations continue to operate in Canada as of 2013, primarily in suburban shopping malls, though many have been closed in recent years, especially if located in close proximity to an Indigo or Chapters location, with others converted into IndigoSpirit stores.

Expansion into the United States[edit]

After dominating the Canadian book market by the early 1970s, Coles found little opportunity for further growth within Canada and Jack Coles decided to explore further expansion south of the border by opening new "Coles - the Book People!" stores in the rapidly expanding United States market.[13][6]

The first store in the United States was opened in Buffalo, New York in 1973.[6] By 1980, there were 56 stores in the United States with more being opened.[13] In 1987, Southam decided to sell or close the U.S. stores since the stores were not generating enough profit.[14] A few months later 52 U.S. stores were sold to K-Mart and were converted into Waldenbooks stores.[15][16]


  1. ^ First Canadian Place store directory[dead link]
  2. ^ a b Indigo History[dead link]
  3. ^ Kearney, Mark & Ray, Randy (2002). I Know that Name!: The People Behind Canada's Best-known Brand Names from Elizabeth Arden to Walter Zeller. Dundurn. pp. 62–65. ISBN 9781550024074. 
  4. ^ Renzetti, Elizabeth (March 10, 1998). "Smart enough to keep them Coles Notes first editio_n nets pair $2,500 each". Globe and Mail. p. D.1. Sam Darichuk and Marion Stephenson split a $5,000 prize for producing the 1948 Coles Notes translation of Prosper Mérimée's Colomba, a long-forgotten 1904 adventure story set in Corsica.  Link via ProQuest.
  5. ^ "50 years of Coles Notes". Vancouver Sun. January 31, 1998. p. D9. Chapters bookstore will pay $5,000 for an intact copy of the first Coles Notes ever published. Chapters, which owns the rights to Coles Notes, wants to find the first edition of the notes -- a study guide for Columba, a translated French novel by Prosper Merimee, which was on Ontario's Grade 13 curriculum in 1948.  Link via ProQuest.
  6. ^ a b c Lazarus, George (September 26, 1973). "Canada bookseller eyes Chicago market". Chicago Tribune. p. c10. Coles, which has 67 stores in Canada, began its U.S. invasion this week, opening a unit in a Buffalo shopping center.  Link via ProQuest.
  7. ^ Medley, Mark (March 14, 2014). "Final frame: An oral history of the World’s Biggest Bookstore". National Post. Retrieved November 23, 2014. 
  8. ^ a b Southam Inc. sells Coles to SmithBooks, Southam press release, April 11, 1995[dead link]
  9. ^ Keddy, Barbara (July 20, 1978). "Southam to buy control of Coles at $23 a share". Globe and Mail. p. B.1. Southam Press Ltd. of Toronto has agreed to purchase the controlling interest in Canada's largest chain of retail book stores, Coles Book Stores Ltd. of Toronto. Southam will purchase the interest in Coles held by the Cole family, who own 900,000 shares, or 62 per cent, of the outstanding stock.  Link via ProQuest.
  10. ^ Israelson, David & Daw, James (September 8, 1994). "Coles joining SmithBooks to form giant The two chains to have 434 stores across Canada". Toronto Star. p. B1. (subscription required (help)). Coles and SmithBooks, two of Canada's best known booksellers, are joining forces to battle the invading U.S. retail giants, the companies have announced. Coles' parent Southam Inc. has signed a letter of intent to sell the bookstores to FICG Inc., owner of SmithBooks. The sale will give the two chains a total of 434 stores, or 21 per cent of all bookshops in Canada.  Alternate Link via ProQuest.
  11. ^ "Coles sale done deal". Vancouver Sun. March 22, 1995. p. D.6. The federal government has closed the book on its review of the sale of Coles Book Stores to FICG Inc., owner of rival SmithBooks. Southam Inc., which owns Coles, said Tuesday the Bureau of Competition Policy will not challenge the sale. With the regulatory hurdle cleared, the deal is expected to be completed by early next month. SmithBooks announced in September it was taking over the 258 Coles stores across the country, giving the combined company 430 outlets and about 30 per cent of the book retailing market. Southam, which also owns 17 daily newspapers across Canada and various business information services, is selling the money-losing book store chain in return for a minority interest in the new company.  Link via ProQuest.
  12. ^ "Chapters, Indigo unveil merger details". CBC News. June 13, 2001. 
  13. ^ a b "Jack Cole's Growing Bookstore Empire: Canada's No. 1 Chain Setting Sights on U.S.". New York Times. December 23, 1980. p. D3. (subscription required (help)). Since 1973, Coles Book Stores Ltd., of which the 60-year-old, outspoken Mr. Coles is co-founder and president, has opened 56 stores across the United States, 12 of them last year. Coles now has 165 stores in Canada, more than three times those of its closest chain competitors. To protect himself against American competition, Mr. Cole has frozen the B. Dalton and the Walden chains out of the Canadian market by register those names himself in 1973 in Canada. Books for the United States stores are bought there, shipped to the Toronto warehouse and then distributed to the United States. Investment analysts says a shortage of locations has Mr. Cole in a quandary in his push into the United States. "He had to enter the United States market since opportunities in Canada are limited, with shopping center construction going down and the market being saturated." "But it is more difficult for him to get locations in the United States since he isn't well known there."  Link via ProQuest.
  14. ^ "Southam to sell U.S. Coles stores". Vancouver Sun. April 24, 1987. p. C6. Southam Inc. is looking for buyers for its 50 Coles book stores in the United States, president John Fisher says. The U.S. outlets are scattered and Southam has long talked about consolidating them into only a few urban centres.  Link via ProQuest.
  15. ^ "Business Brief: Southam Inc.". Wall Street Journal (Eastern ed.). July 22, 1987. p. 1. (subscription required (help)). Southam Inc., Toronto, said its Coles Book Stores Ltd. unit agreed to sell its 52 U.S. book stores and related assets to Waldenbooks Inc., a large Stamford, Conn.-based book retailer.  Alternate Link via ProQuest.
  16. ^ "Coles Book Stores will sell U.S. assets to Waldenbooks Inc.". Globe and Mail. July 22, 1987. p. B.5. Coles Book Stores Ltd. , a unit of Southam Inc. of Toronto, says it has agreed in principle to sell its U.S. store assets to Waldenbooks Inc. of Stamford, Conn. Terms were not disclosed. The sale involves Coles' 52 stores in the United States and associated assets. Coles will continue to operate its 185 stores in Canada.  Link via ProQuest.

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