The chief executive of Barnes & Noble, James Daunt, who took over last summer, thought the company’s stores were badly in need of some sprucing up. His plan, over the next two years or so, was to close locations on a rotating basis for a few weeks at a time to refurnish and refurbish.
Then the coronavirus closed almost all of them down at once.
This spring, Barnes & Noble used lockdowns around the country as a chance to refresh more than 350 of its 614 stores throughout the United States, using small teams to move furniture around, paint walls and bring in new books. Revamping the stores was part of a broader plan to revive the company, a difficult task to begin with that has become a lot more formidable under the weight of the pandemic.
“I knew I wanted to rip these stores apart and put them back together in a different way,” Daunt said. “And then suddenly: ‘Oh my goodness, they’re all shut. Let’s get to work.’
“At the same time,” he added, “we didn’t want to spend any money, because we didn’t know how long this pandemic was going to go on for.”
Jonathan Castro, the manager of a Barnes & Noble at a strip mall in Yonkers, New York, spent about two weeks in April and May taking books off the shelves and reorganizing the furniture. He was one of three people who came into the store every other day, alternating with another group of three.
Some of the walls are painted blue now, and the signs look a little different. Many more of the books face out on shelves, so that customers can see the covers as they walk by. The books have been reorganized — for instance, nutrition titles and cookbooks are next to each other now, instead of on opposite ends of the store. And overall, the floor feels much more open. Many of the bulky displays have been thrown away — Daunt said every store got a dumpster — and replaced by smaller tables that are easier to browse and to walk around.
“It’s a lot more open,” Castro said. “I can’t even explain how tight it was in here. You couldn’t really shop.”
But much about the store remains the same. The brown leafy wallpaper is still there, as are the green and beige carpets. The bookshelves aren’t new, and have the chips and scuffs to prove it. There are still indents in the rugs that mark the old layout.
Taken all together, it’s like seeing a friend for the first time in a while and wondering: What’s different? Did you get a haircut?
Beyond tweaking the look of the place, what’s on the shelves is also a bit different. Debra Edwards, who runs the children’s books department at the Yonkers store, noticed while restocking during the lockdown that older titles — like “Strawberry Girl” (1945), by Lois Lenski, and “Rifles for Watie” (1957), by Harold Keith — were being sent in from the warehouses again. These books, both Newbery Medal winners, hadn’t been kept in stock in recent years, she said, but teachers and grandparents would come in looking for them. Adding them back is part of an effort to beef up the backlist in Barnes & Noble stores. They will have about the same number of total books on the shelves, but fewer of each title, offering a greater variety.
“She came back,” Edwards said, pointing to Elizabeth Enright’s “Thimble Summer” (1938) on the shelf, near some other books that had recently returned. “We were excited because we get asked about them.”
This is not the first makeover that Daunt has orchestrated. A bookseller who opened his first store, Daunt Books, in London in 1990, he was put in charge of Waterstones, Britain’s largest bookstore chain, nine years ago. He managed, over time, to return that company to profitability. Elliott Advisors, the private equity firm that bought Waterstones in 2018, now also owns Barnes & Noble, which it purchased last year for $683 million. Elliott brought Daunt to New York to try a similar strategy to the one he used in Britain.
Fundamental to his approach, he said, is to keep the efficiencies and buying power of a big chain while giving individual stores a bit more independence, which would, in theory, allow them to better reflect and cater to local tastes. Each store’s manager will have more say in how they augment stock. If a book sells through and they don’t think it makes sense to restock it, they don’t have to — though there are limits.
“If they don’t keep ‘Catcher in the Rye’ in stock, they’ll find someone knocking on their door quite quickly,” Daunt said. “Frankly, if they’re good at their job, we’ll leave them totally alone. But we have to have control in case they’re less good at it. It’s not a free pass to incompetence.”
“The reading habits in the far reaches of Alabama are not the same as on the Upper West Side,” he added. “The calculation is that the local guy is going to do generally a much better job than we do from Fifth Avenue.”
Daunt said the plan to more thoroughly update the stores remains in place, with the hope of a lot less disruption now that these initial changes have been made during the lockdown. The question of when this will happen is still very much in the air. Books have sold well during the pandemic, but with stores closed this spring and the surging virus now threatening locations that have reopened, it’s been an extraordinarily difficult year for the company. Store sales are up from where they were at the height of the lockdown, Daunt said, but still down about 20% overall from last year. But that number masks an enormous variation. In some parts of the country, he said, sales are normal or even up, while in New York City, it’s “absolutely horrendous.”
In the meantime, shoppers are adjusting to the newly reorganized stores.
“Where can I find all the puzzles?” a woman demanded at the Yonkers location last week. “Since you changed everything.”
Castro jumped into action and led her affably to a shelf nearby. “They’re right over here,” he said.
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