Digital platforms are struggling, meanwhile a 136-year-old book retailer is growing again. But why?
This would be a perfect model for radio if the corporate overlords would allow it.
The B&N near me (new last year) used its front-and-center table, during the holiday shopping season, for those well-made hardback Penguin Classics editions with the elegant foil-stamped covers and no dust jackets — a book lover’s dream, probably not going to catch anyone else’s eye. Of course the new releases were two steps away, but still, it was quite a statement about what kind of store it was: by book lovers, for book lovers. It made me happy. Maybe I’m weird and maybe it’s a niche, but it’s a niche that isn’t going away, and I can’t see how you grow a niche without showing that kind of enthusiasm for it!
But -- the cafes are great! Just amazing! When my wife and I were both getting our PhDs and entertainment was expensive and we had an infant we would take her to B&N and take turns browsing books and she could sit with one of us in the cafe and have a cookie and cocoa before going over to the revamped kids' section and picking a board book out. Still if I am out and need a coffee the B&N is the best option, not because it is the best coffee but because it gives me an excuse to go to the bookstore.
I mean otherwise, yeah. But keep the cafe!
I lived in London in the 1970-80s around the corner from Daunt's first store. It had been purpose-built as a bookstore generations earlier. Then back in the USA I worked for Barnes & Noble for the best part of 20 years, until I had back trouble and couldn't stand behind a till anymore. (I hoped they would give me a retirement employee discount, but no such luck.) In the stores it was always us against corporate -- they were unbelievably stupid. Daunt was appalled when he took over that they had fired so many of their most experienced people. And now, since Daunt took over, when I visit the last store I worked in, the change in the atmosphere is dramatic -- everybody is happy!
Hurrah! "If you want to sell music, you must love those songs. If you want to succeed in journalism, you must love those newspapers. If you want to succeed in movies, you must love the cinema."
I could tell essentially the same story about sales of musical instruments, specifically those of the electronic persuasion. Saw it "up close and personal" with Moog synthesizers, Gibson guitars, and a whole line of others . . .
Guys from Quaker Oats and Beatrice Foods, no matter how "smart" they are–simply can't cut the mustard–because they don't know the territory!
We shopped at B&N for Xmas this year after not being in a bookstore for years. We both realized we had missed the “old” bookstore vibes. We saw cards written and signed by staffers about why they liked a certain book. Nice touch. Bought many and will be back again.
I used to go to Blockbuster Video a lot. One of my favorite spots in the store was the shelf that had employee favorites. Generally, it was all very solid, and I tried more than a few things I didn't know that were on that shelf.
Good curation is a thing that has value. I'm not anti-Algorithm per se, but the Algorithm has to be specifically tuned to serve <em>me</em> rather than the shareholders. It's not that hard to tell when the goal of a corporate enterprise is shaking you down, rather than serving you.
Maybe the disintermediation of the internet has made it easier for us to tell that.
As someone who spent his career in the investment field, I believe the root of the problem you're writing about is that the financial services industry has mutated into the financial mastery industry. Rather than existing to support various fields of endeavor, the financial sector has systematically reduced virtually every sector of the manufacturing and service fields into subservience. They exist only to support and glorify the financiers that have taken them over. This column describes the efforts of one person who in his own way has embodied the protagonist of the famous Apple "1984" advertisement. It will only be when hundreds or thousands have accepted that role and thrown off the shackles of their enslavers that creativity will again rise to the fore. The truly unsettling aspect of this dynamic is that much of the wherewithal that enables these financial types arises from endowments from educational institutions; the very bodies that should be focused on facilitating the future are aligned with the forces that are arrayed to stunt it. Go figure.
Cheshire Books, a publishing company and bookstore in Melbourne, Australia, was run the same way. The employees, choose the books that went on the display table and window display. Each employee was in charge of a category and was expected to have read many books in their section, plus, they were required to read one new book from the display, each week. It was a great place to work. We all got on well and a block away there was a children's bookstore, run by the same company. The woman wore dresses or skirts and blouses and the men wore suits, or slacks and ties. That was in 1967. Alas, the store is no more.
Speaking as a publishing industry reporter & observer, I couldn't agree more with your assessment of James Daunt's leadership and business strategy. Unfortunately, the picture isn't quite as bright for B&N as those numbers would have you believe. B&N stores were once quite large (e.g., 25,000 square feet); the new stores opening are less than half that in some cases. And they're largely re-opening stores that closed during the pandemic.
It's also concerning that during a record two years for book sales (the pandemic was great for book sales of all kinds), Barnes & Noble didn't see the same percentage increase, indicating they've lost market share. Some industry insiders believe the current private equity owner is trying to position the company favorably for sale.
Voices From The Line: Larry Lonero
What happened to Southwest Airlines?
I’ve been a pilot for Southwest Airlines for over 35 years. I’ve given my heart and soul to Southwest Airlines during those years. And quite honestly Southwest Airlines has given its heart and soul to me and my family.
Many of you have asked what caused this epic meltdown. Unfortunately, the frontline employees have been watching this meltdown coming like a slow motion train wreck for sometime. And we’ve been begging our leadership to make much needed changes in order to avoid it. What happened yesterday started two decades ago.
Herb Kelleher was the brilliant CEO of SWA until 2004. He was a very operationally oriented leader. Herb spent lots of time on the front line. He always had his pulse on the day to day operation and the people who ran it. That philosophy flowed down through the ranks of leadership to the front line managers. We were a tight operation from top to bottom. We had tools, leadership and employee buy in. Everything that was needed to run a first class operation. When Herb retired in 2004 Gary Kelly became the new CEO.
Gary was an accountant by education and his style leading Southwest Airlines became more focused on finances and less on operations. He did not spend much time on the front lines. He didn’t engage front line employees much. When the CEO doesn’t get out in the trenches the neither do the lower levels of leadership.
Gary named another accountant to be Chief Operating Officer (the person responsible for day to day operations). The new COO had little or no operational background. This trickled down through the lower levels of leadership, as well.
They all disengaged the operation, disengaged the employees and focused more on Return on Investment, stock buybacks and Wall Street. This approach worked for Gary’s first 8 years because we were still riding the strong wave that Herb had built.
But as time went on the operation began to deteriorate. There was little investment in upgrading technology (after all, how do you measure the return on investing in infrastructure?) or the tools we needed to operate efficiently and consistently. As the frontline employees began to see the deterioration in our operation we began to warn our leadership. We educated them, we informed them and we made suggestions to them. But to no avail. The focus was on finances not operations. As we saw more and more deterioration in our operation our asks turned to pleas. Our pleas turned to dire warnings. But they went unheeded. After all, the stock price was up so what could be wrong?
We were a motivated, willing and proud employee group wanting to serve our customers and uphold the tradition of our beloved airline, the airline we built and the airline that the traveling public grew to cheer for and luv. But we were watching in frustration and disbelief as our once amazing airline was becoming a house of cards.
A half dozen small scale meltdowns occurred during the mid to late 2010’s. With each mini meltdown Leadership continued to ignore the pleas and warnings of the employees in the trenches. We were still operating with 1990’s technology. We didn’t have the tools we needed on the line to operate the sophisticated and large airline we had become. We could see that the wheels were about ready to fall off the bus. But no one in leadership would heed our pleas.
When COVID happened SWA scaled back considerably (as did all of the airlines) for about two years. This helped conceal the serious problems in technology, infrastructure and staffing that were occurring and being ignored. But as we ramped back up the lack of attention to the operation was waiting to show its ugly head.
Gary Kelly retired as CEO in early 2022. Bob Jordan was named CEO. He was a more operationally oriented leader. He replaced our Chief Operating Officer with a very smart man and they announced their priority would be to upgrade our airline’s technology and provide the frontline employees the operational tools we needed to care for our customers and employees. Finally, someone acknowledged the elephant in the room.
But two decades of neglect takes several years to overcome. And, unfortunately to our horror, our house of cards came tumbling down this week as a routine winter storm broke our 1990’s operating system.
The frontline employees were ready and on station. We were properly staffed. We were at the airports. Hell, we were ON the airplanes. But our antiquated software systems failed coupled with a decades old system of having to manage 20,000 frontline employees by phone calls. No automation had been developed to run this sophisticated machine.
We had a routine winter storm across the Midwest last Thursday. A larger than normal number flights were cancelled as a result. But what should have been one minor inconvenient day of travel turned into this nightmare. After all, American, United, Delta and the other airlines operated with only minor flight disruptions.
The two decades of neglect by SWA leadership caused the airline to lose track of all its crews. ALL of us. We were there. With our customers. At the jet. Ready to go. But there was no way to assign us. To confirm us. To release us to fly the flight. And we watched as our customers got stranded without their luggage missing their Christmas holiday.
I believe that our new CEO Bob Jordan inherited a MESS. This meltdown was not his failure but the failure of those before him. I believe he has the right priorities. But it will take time to right this ship. A few years at a minimum. Old leaders need to be replaced. Operationally oriented managers need to be brought in. I hope and pray Bob can execute on his promises to fix our once proud airline. Time will tell.
It’s been a punch in the gut for us frontline employees. We care for the traveling public. We have spent our entire careers serving you. Safely. Efficiently. With luv and pride. We are horrified. We are sorry. We are sorry for the chaos, inconvenience and frustration our airline caused you. We are angry. We are embarrassed. We are sad. Like you, the traveling public, we have been let down by our own leaders.
Herb once said the the biggest threat to Southwest Airlines will come from within. Not from other airlines. What a visionary he was. I miss Herb now more than ever.
This article dovetails with your analysis of the B&N recent success story. A company's failure or success always depends on the management, always. A caveat to remember: The unexamined process deteriorates.
Ted, I posted this on Hacker News, and it shot to #1 on the front page! 430+ comments so far. Check it out.
I used to ditch high school and go to B&N to read and learn about what I wanted instead. I loved the comfy chairs and the extensive magazines.
I love books, and as a young man I got a job at a large used and antiquarian bookstore. While my friends in high school and university got summer jobs in food service, I stuck with bookstores. I worked my way up to Barnes & Noble and by 1995 I was an assistant manager at the largest Borders megastore on the east coast. I enjoyed the work, even though I wasn't making much money. But there was a dark cloud on the horizon.
At that time both B&N and Borders were still building more stores and expanding their retail operations. Around this time I heard about Amazon and took a chance ordering a new title from them with my credit card (believe it or not, in 1995 buying books over the internet was considered an unusual and risky proposition: why, I was asked, couldn't you just drive to your local bookstore to buy the book?) and was delighted when the book arrived a few days later. Not long after this, there was a big all-hands meeting at Borders with top management from HQ, and they were detailing plans for further bricks-and-mortar expansion. I approached the CEO of the company after the meeting, and after a few pleasantries I couldn't help dropping the bomb:
"Amazon is going to eat our lunch."
I told him that expanding retail outlets is the last thing he should be doing, and that they should be fronting that money into online bookselling and delivery infrastructure before Amazon beat them to it. He laughed at the audacity of my remarks, and replied that he was "watching Amazon" but "physical bookstores are not going away, this internet stuff is just a fad."
And that was that. I moved on to a different, more lucrative career a few years later, and a few years after that Borders was on the ropes. The last year that Borders turned a profit was 2006. By 2011 they were bankrupt, and B&N acquired Borders' trademarks and customer list.
There is nothing in the world quite like sitting down with an actual book in your hands and reading. I have always thought if I had any real money I would have a large library in my home. It has always, to me, signified thirst for knowledge, entertainment and the sublime feeling of what a good story can do for you. I still use the library often, because though I agree that books should not be under valued, I can't always afford them. I have been to B&N several times during the holidays and it does feel different there. My problem is I can find 20 books in 10 minutes I wish I could buy and take home to my little book shelf. Kudos to B&N and Mr. Daunt for their success.
Clearly this fellow MMS is copying the style and operation of the portuguese Plantation Livraria Lello!
THE LELLO BROTHERS INAUGURATE, AT NUMBER 144 ON RUA DAS CARMELITAS, ON 13TH JANUARY, THE CURRENT LIVRARIA LELLO BUILDING DESIGNED BY FRANCISCO XAVIER ESTEVES.
This one you pay to enter! If you buy a book they discount the entry price if no book is bought the money reverts to the maintenance of the building and the collection of Books.