- The Barnes & Noble CEO owns nine independent bookstores scattered around London.
- But in the 1990s, the bookseller was seen everywhere as the enemy of small bookstores.
- That was before Barnes & Noble went into decline – these days it’s undergoing a major overhaul.
In the 1998 film “You’ve Got Mail,” independent bookseller Kathleen Kelly, played by Meg Ryan, describes Fox Books, a clear replacement for Barnes & Noble, as “a theme park, layered, homogenizes it -world Mochaccinoland.”
The film pitted stores like Kelly’s, a cozy neighborhood bookstore passed down from her mother, against national bookstore chains, which were supposed to steal customers from independent stores and bankrupt those stores. According to the movie, chains like Barnes & Noble were the enemy of anyone who really loved books.
Fast forward over two decades, and Barnes & Noble had a tumultuous rise and fallresulting in a new owner and a new CEO – who happens to own a small bookstore himself.
“I believe independent bookstores can thrive. I’ve supported this with my own money because I own nine of them,” said James Daunt, CEO of Barnes & Noble since 2019, in an interview published by the National Retail Federation.
Daunt was referring to Daunt Books, a small chain of bookshops scattered around London and the surrounding area. Daunt’s first store, located in London’s Marylebone district, opened in 1990 and is known for its airy, sky-lit space and books sorted by countrynot the author or the title.
Daunt Books is still owned by Daunt today, despite its rise through the corporate bookstore ranks. He was appointed CEO of Waterstones, UK-based bookseller in 2011 and helped turn around the ailing business. Waterstones was acquired by hedge fund Elliott Management in 2018, the same company that bought Barnes & Noble the following year for $638 million.
Daunt now oversees around 600 Barnes & Noble stores in the US, as well as 100 Paper Source stores and nearly 300 Waterstones stores in the UK and Europe, according to Barnes & Noble.
Daunt acknowledged to the NRF that some small booksellers went out of business during the heyday of Barnes & Noble in the late 1990s — in fact, the American Booksellers Association, a group that represents independent bookstores, filed a complaint against Barnes & Noble alleging that the retailer was abusing its dominant market position. But around the same time, Amazon had become a major threat both at Barnes & Noble and smaller bookstores, eventually shifting the conversation from brick-and-mortar turf wars to online book sales and e-readers.
And even though Barnes & Noble is now in the middle of a major recovery effort, Daunt is not planning a revival of a “You’ve Got Mail” style feud.
“The best bookstore in New York is McNally Jackson Books,” he told the NRF, “and they have nothing to fear from Barnes & Noble.”