In the 1998 movie You’ve Got Mail, Tom Hanks plays the owner of a big-box bookstore, threatening to put Meg Ryan’s indie book seller out of business. At the time, book behemoths like Borders and Barnes & Noble were seen as the enemy of the littles—and perhaps of reading more broadly. But a lot has changed. Borders went under a decade ago, whereas Barnes & Noble instead has emerged as essential for readers and an unlikely ally to independent bookstores today. Its role is unique, in that its demands require publishers to continue investing in physical products for physical stores. It also gives readers easy and wide access to new titles. These two benefits are critical in the face of disruption by online retail (read: Amazon!). Accordingly, even if it may seem surprising, Barnes & Noble is thriving in the face of the pandemic years and the constant threat from Amazon. Book sales shot up by an unprecedented amount during the pandemic, which meant good numbers for Barnes & Noble. Furthermore, after James Daunt became the company’s chief executive in 2018, he empowered store managers to make more independent decisions tailored to local conditions, like how many copies of a certain book to order and which books to promote. Despite these positive assessments though, industry analysts remain cautious. As the pandemic ebbs, tougher days may lie ahead for books sellers, in part because people who are no longer forced to remain sheltering home might read less, but also due to the same challenges that are pressing every industry today, like rising costs and supply chain disarray. Even if overall book sales are unlikely to grow though, customer traffic may increase in brick-and-mortar bookstores. So even in this strange economic time—with one more nod to You’ve Got Mail—all the bookstores are not becoming Baby Gaps just yet.

Source: Elizabeth A. Harris, “How Barnes & Noble Went from Villain to Hero,” The New York Times, April 15, 2022; Yuki Noguchi, “Why Borders Failed While Barnes & Noble Survived,” NPR, July 19, 2011; Lisa Fickenscher, “The Pandemic Has Sparked a Book Craze—And Barnes & Noble Is Cashing In,” New York Post, September 19, 2021; Jim Milliot, “Print Sales Likely to Fall in 2022,” Publishers Weekly, January 28, 2022