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B&N’s new president

Ted Gioio has an interesting article on substack: What Can We Learn from Barnes & Noble’s Surprising Turnaround?. He claims that B&N is doing surprisingly well since [James] Daunt was put in charge of Barnes & Noble in August 2019.”

The bookstore business since 1976, as I see it

We all miss the bookstores of old, small places whose owners were former English majors or people with specialized interests such as sci fi. Pre-Internet, we had few other ways to find books that might interest us. (Libraries helped, of course.) Many stores could simply stock their shelves with good books and people would come.

In 1976 I got a job as a publisher’s rep for St Martin’s Press. My job was to educate myself about St Martin’s books for the upcoming season and then go out and meet with book buyers for independent bookstores in DC, MD, PA, western NY state and eastern Ohio. I learned a lot about telephone books, maps, bookstores and motels. (BTW, my sales manager seemed perfectly happy with the way I worked. I told my buyers what books St Martin’s was going to promote each season and encouraged them to buy a few or take advantage of available ad money if they wished. Buyers liked my approach. One buyer in Rochester panicked my by pushing her order sheet over to me and telling me to fill in her order!)

In 1976 B&N was a fabulous bookstore on 5th Avenue in Manhattan. I especially loved it because it had a basement of textbooks as well as upper floors of trade books.

1976 was also the year that Kramerbooks, one of DCs most serious and prestigious bookstores, located a couple of blocks from the White House, opened a much smaller bookstore with a café near Dupont Circle.
Every book buyer I met wanted to know what I thought of Afterwords and find out how they were doing. Answer: very well.

In addition to Afterwords, bookstores everywhere were experimenting with ways to increase their business.

  • Special orders. These are usually not profitable, but they build loyalty and traffic.
  • Work with schools to bring students to stores
  • Author readings
  • Play areas for children
  • And, of course, cafés

And we should never forget that bookstores have always provided refuge from our urban landscapes.

It’s fashionable in my circles to disparage B&N, as Gioio does when he criticises B&N’s book selection and coffee. I disagree with those friends.

I see B&N as a company that saw how bookstores could apply all these new methods to get people into stores buying books on a grand scale.

Ted Gioio must be young because he’s apparently unaware of the fact that pre-Amazon B&N stores had fabulous, deep inventories. Moreover they brought books to many places in America where people had no bookstores or didn’t patronize them. I’ll never forget driving from New Orleans, where I had sold books to a wonderful bookstore in the French Quarter, and stopping at a phone booth in Metairie, LA, to look for bookstores in that city of half a million residents. They had one Logos (i.e., not a real bookstore) and a B&N. Good on B&N for being there.

BTW, Gioio seems to believe that people want to buy good books in order to read them. If he’d ever been in the book business he’d know that about 2/3 of bookstore sales come at - you guessed it - Xmas! That’s why we sales reps worked hardest during the summer to make sure that bookstores had the books that would sell and keep them in business later in the year. (Many of the books I sold in the summer didn’t arrive until late in the year.) I’ll never forget selling 2000 copies of James Harriet’s book, All Things Wise and Wonderful to a department store in Philadelphia; you can be sure that all of them sold.

B&N has suffered immensely from Internet sales, of course. Giono condescendingly remarks that … the digital age caught the company by surprise” as if B&N was unique in that regard. They weren’t the only bookstores to suffer. In hindsight, we can join Gioio in criticizing the reduced book inventory and all the cards, gifts etc. that replaced them, but are we all certain that we could do a better job?

I do agree with Gioio that James Daunt sounds fantastic. B&N wasn’t the only corporation that didn’t listen to employees or allow them to guide a business, but it sounds as if it’s one of the few to do something to rectify the culture. More power to em! I can’t wait to go visit our local B&N and see if I notice any difference.

(Local B&N websites don’t seem to work, but that could be my so-called security at work. Or it could be Daunt at work.)

  • ge
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