By Debbie Burke
What goes around comes around. And around. And around.
So goes the tale of Barnes & Noble.
The bookseller was founded in New York in 1886 as Arthur Hinds & Company. A clerk named Gilbert Clifford Noble rose to partnership and soon changed the name to Hinds & Noble. In 1917, Noble partnered with William Barnes to become Barnes & Noble.
Fun fact: In 1940, B&N was one of the first businesses to feature Muzak.
A single NYC store grew to a nationwide chain. In 1974, the Fifth Avenue B&N became the biggest bookstore in the world.
Along the way, B&N gained a reputation as a corporate bully that gobbled up smaller chains and elbowed aside numerous independent bookstores, putting many out of business.
Big fish eat little fish. To the dismay of readers, few indie minnows survived B&N’s dominance.
“Barnes & Noble was perceived as not just the enemy,” said a former chief executive of the American Booksellers Association, which represents indie shops, told the New York Times, “but as being everything about corporate book selling that was wrong.”
Then…along came a whale named Amazon.
Online book sales thrived while physical bookstores dropped by the wayside. The juggernaut of Amazon led to mergers and bankruptcies of sizable chains like Waldenbooks, Crown, and B. Dalton. In 2011, Borders filed bankruptcy, leaving B&N the sole remaining national bookstore chain.
Amazon was fast gaining ground.
In 2010, B&N introduced the Nook e-reader to compete with Kindle but it never came close to Kindle’s success. Stores added coffee shops, free wi-fi, gifts, and non-book merchandise, hoping to survive. Nothing worked. Sales dropped, employees were fired, stores closed.
Per Ted Gioia, The Honest Broker:
“By 2018 the company was in total collapse. Barnes & Noble lost $18 million that year, and fired 1,800 full time employees—in essence shifting almost all store operations to part time staff. Around that same time, the company fired its CEO due to sexual harassment claims.”
The bookseller that had put so many other bookstores out of business appeared ready to join their fate.
Enter James Daunt. The 59-year-old former banker and business exec had founded Daunt Books and turned around Waterstone’s, a British bookseller that had once languished in similar straits to B&N. In 2019, he took the helm as B&N’s CEO and set out to rescue the floundering chain.
A daunting task (sorry, couldn’t help myself).
Daunt turned the focus back to books and got rid of unrelated merchandise. He gave control of stores to local staff, correctly reasoning that the people who meet customers every day are in the best position to know what their particular readers want.
Y’know, like mom-and-pop indie bookstores used to do.
Managers have free rein to stock books by local authors, including good-quality self-published ones, and those of regional interest. They no longer have to stock books chosen by a single head buyer from thousands of miles away.
A few months ago, I visited B&N in Missoula, Montana. The manager not only ordered some of my books, she is also happy to host an in-person event later this year.
B&N stores are now becoming more like the indie bookstores they used to put out of business.
Daunt’s strategies are succeeding. In 2023, B&N plans to open 30 new stores. Ironically, some will take over the same locations where Amazon’s experimental physical bookstores failed.
What goes around comes around.
What’s coming around now for B&N is good news for readers. It also gives a boost to local authors who want to see their books on real shelves.
TKZers: Have you visited a B&N store recently? Do you see changes? What’s your opinion about them under the new leadership?
COMING SOON! SPRING 2023!
DEEP FAKE ~ Tawny Lindholm Thriller #8
You can’t believe your own eyes.
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