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We’re about to say something that many actors in the book retailing sector would have been shocked to hear, not all that long ago: It’s a good time to open some new, humongous bookstores.

Barnes & Noble, once considered a villainous threat to indie bookstores, came to be seen as a fellow endangered species, along with the indies, in the age of Amazon. But in a surprise third-act twist, Barnes & Noble is now getting a lot of attention for adopting some indie business practices and using them to grow and thrive. The company is planning its biggest expansion in a decade, with 30 new stores—some in gigantic stores where Amazon opened, then shuttered, its own massive bookstores.

Why is Barnes & Noble doing so well, now? The pandemic provides one answer, with 2021 setting a record for U.S. book sales—just when Barnes & Noble began embarking on expansion plans. Chief Executive Officer James Daunt and his unorthodox business practices might be another.

Daunt founded the British indie chain Daunt Books and turned around the failing U.K. bookstore chain Waterstones. He was made CEO of Barnes & Nobles in 2019, when the chain was bought by the same hedge fund that owns Waterstones, with the mandate of updating the chain’s 600-some stores.

To do so, he has actively applied the indie model of bookselling to the biggest of big chains. This strategy includes empowering individual stores to stock the books that the shoppers in their communities actually want to read and buy, instead of requiring each store to carry the same merchandise. He’s also “embraced TikTok’s BookTok and social media influencers,” as NPR put it, along with no longer accepting publisher payments for special displays.

The strategy, or strategies, are working. Barnes & Noble is no longer a public company, such that it does not disclose its sales or revenue figures. But according to Shannon DeVito, B&N’s director of books, the company grew by more than 4 percent last year—and she believes that the business will keep going strong: “What has changed is, I think, my hope that we’re going to be here for decades and decades and decades now,”  she told NPR.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Is now a good time for Barnes & Noble to open 30 new stores?
  2. How can Barnes & Noble draw in even more customers?
  3. Could other retail businesses successfully adopt this type of “indie” model for their individual stores?

Sources: Stephanie Stacey, “The Barnes & Noble CEO Says Sales Are Rising Because He Trusts His Booksellers to ‘Create Good Bookshops’ and Run Each Store the Way They Want To,” Insider, February 25, 2023; Alina Selyukh, “How Barnes & Noble Turned a Page, Expanding for the First Time in Years,” NPR.org, March 7, 2023; Elizabeth Segran, “Barnes & Noble Is Stealing the Indie Shop Playbook, and It’s Working,” Fast Company, February 28, 2023; Ezra Klein, “How Barnes & Noble Came Back From Near Death,” The New York Times, January 28, 2023

Photo from iStock.com/tupungato