Retailers kicked off the new year with a bang at Retail’s Big Show, the National Retail Federation’s (NRF) annual conference, which drew several big-name speakers, including actress and brand founder Drew Barrymore and US-based bookstore chain Barnes & Noble CEO James Daunt. In conversation with reporter Lauren Thomas of The Wall Street Journal, Daunt discussed the realities of keeping up the bookstore chain’s legacy in a rapidly shifting market. An independent bookstore owner himself,
lf, Daunt founded Daunt Books in the UK in 1990, he admitted during the panel that it’s ironic how well independent bookstores are performing today, and said “the big guys should be doing better” Anyone who has seen the film You’ve Got Mail, which is set in the late ’90s, and involves the demise of The Shop Around the Corner, an independent children’s bookstore, due to the arrival of a megastore, is familiar with the narrative of the beloved but struggling indie bookstore. But the reality is, today, The Shop Around the Corner would stand a much better chance of survival, thanks to the revival of indie bookstores in recent years. The American Book Association (ABA) measured 2,185 bookstore businesses, 2,599 locations, and over 300 more members in 2023 than it had in 2019, making its highest membership levels in over 20 years. Not only are independent bookstores becoming a regular neighborhood fixture again, but they are thriving in online sales as well. As reported by IndieCommerce, an e-commerce platform for independent bookstores run by the ABA, since 2020, independently run bookstores have seen a 580 per cent increase in sales with over US$200 million in online revenue. As Daunt remarked during the panel, indie bookstores are doing much better than big-chain retailers largely because they have been able to adapt to the environment around them and fine-tune their offerings to what the local consumers are looking for. It is with a similar plan that Barnes & Noble has begun to shift its image from a large corporation to a welcoming “indie” version of a bookstore chain. James Daunt’s slow but steady work to revive Barnes & Noble’s legacy Daunt has quite an interesting history in the world of book commerce. With over 30 years of experience in bookselling, he got his start in London with the launch of Daunt Books, which currently has nine locations and is still independently owned by Daunt. In 2011, Daunt was appointed managing director of then-struggling British bookstore chain Waterstones, and was able to bring back the retailer from a point of near-closure through a series of marketing and store restructuring tactics. In August 2019, Daunt was appointed as Barnes & Noble’s CEO, presumably to “save” the retailer in a similar manner. And to an extent, Daunt has. According to NPD Bookscan, in 2022 Barnes & Noble’s book sales totaled 788.7 million units in 2022, which was down 6.5 per cent from 2021, but still up 11.8 per cent from pre-pandemic sales of 2019. Since his appointment to the Barnes & Noble team, Daunt has worked to fix the retailer’s image, shutting down underperforming and costly locations (such as the chain’s New York City Tribeca location which closed this January), opening up smaller store locations (the average store shift shifted from 26,000 square feet to 14,000 square feet), prioritizing book sales versus that of small gifts and other miscellaneous items, and allowing staff in each individual location to run the store as they see fit, from book selections to display shifts. As Daunt explained, “We have completely different arrays across huge stock-keeping unit counts, so we’re not like most other retailers, and the reality was actually to look at the independent example and see that if you give them [store manager and team] freedom and allow them to do their own thing, they [the stores] will resonate much more effectively with the communities in which they are, then translating that into a chain setting which actually turned out to work.” In addition to pivoting away from a uniform appearance, Daunt said that the retailer will be prioritizing its focus on e-commerce strategies. As Daunt explained, a safe range for e-commerce should account for about 20 per cent of sales; however, currently it only accounts for 10 per cent at Barnes & Noble: “That’s a sort of an unhealthy level and is a reflective of having failed to invest sensibly and enough.” New York’s unique take on the bookselling experience If there is any city that large-scale bookstore chains may want to look to for inspiration, it would be the Big Apple. New York has been the setting of many book-loving protagonists like You’ve Got Mail’s Kathleen Kelly, and for good reason. The city has a rich literary history and is full of unique bookstore concepts that are hard to imagine existing anywhere else. For example, if you head down to Orchard Street in the Lower East Side, you will find Sweet Pickle Books, where you have the option of trading in used books for craft pickles. Yes, you read that right. There is also the Book Club Bar, a combination bookstore and wine bar that hosts art classes, poetry readings, and other socially engaging events for a literary crowd. Or if you take the subway down to Park Slope in Brooklyn, you may come across a pink store dubbed The Ripped Bodice, a romance-centered bookstore with a focus on carrying books written by intersectional authors. In addition to these shops, a new player has just entered New York’s competitive indie bookstore market and is already garnering buzz. Bibliotheque, opened by father-son duo Andrew and A.J. Jacono, made its debut this month and it melds a bookstore with a cafe and wine bar. Shoppers are greeted by 10,000 books, and multiple chandeliers, and can choose from a well-curated wine list. While these indie bookstores offer a variety of aesthetics and in-store experiences, they all share a dedication to carefully curating books and related merchandise and creating enjoyable opportunities for in-store browsing. Be it the Book Club Bar, Bibliotheque, or The Ripped Bodice, Barnes & Noble and other large-scale booksellers can certainly take a few cues from these indie bookstores as they seek to rewrite the modern bookstore concept.