Barnes & Noble: The Injured Kid on the Block?

I worked for an independent bookstore in the late 90s where we saw our foot traffic plummet when a Barnes & Noble opened up in the neighborhood. They were open until 11 p.m. We closed two hours earlier, and that apparently was enough to lure many of our customers away. All around, my poor independent had the feel of a sinking ship about it, back then.

How much things have changed.

It’s been widely reported that Barnes & Noble put itself up for sale earlier this month, and that this may be a gamble on the part of founder Len Riggio to take the company private. This weekend, the New York magazine ran a fantastic article detailing both the company’s history and its battle with investor Ron Burkle. The piece doesn’t mince words:

Riggio was trying to say that, whatever becomes of books as physical objects in this new age of digital distribution, he is certain people will still pay for the pleasure of reading. Assuming he’s right, the more pertinent question is whether they will be spending their money at a Barnes & Noble. Sales numbers are down, and the company is valued at a third of what it was worth four years ago. If it is to avoid the fates of Tower Records and Blockbuster, it will have to figure out how to compete in a world where prices are falling and nimble competitors like Amazon and Apple are offering in actuality what the superstore bookseller used to promise only figuratively: immediate, cheap, and limitless selection.

The article gives a great account of both Riggio and Burkle, as well as a history of how the chain came to be where it is today. After seeing this bookstore chain as the behemoth enemy for so long, it’s odd how much I feel sorry for it now. I really would hate to see it go. I’ve become used to having gargantuan bookstores everywhere. Barnes & Noble has been a mecca whenever I’ve spent more than a week back with the parents in suburbia. There’s something about having this massive chain so fully permeate American society that makes books feel front and center. I love humongous bookstores, even if they are part of a chain.

It does seem that Barnes & Noble has its work cut out for it though. Just as it’s facing the most serious shakeup the book industry has witnessed for a few centuries, it’s also distracted with squabbles amongst shareholders. It’s sheer size works against it. Stockholders want profits, and all that real estate is worth a pretty penny too. Independents have far more freedom–no stockholders or crashing stock markets, much less billionaires bent on hostile takeovers, to fret about. They can focus on readers and their local community. Who else do we depend on for all those book readings?

It’s amazing how quickly things have turned. The once mighty goliath now seems the injured kid on the block.


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