How Barnes & Noble turned a page and expanded for the first time in years

The spirit of Barnes & Noble’s past meets the spirit of Barnes & Noble’s future in a single mall in suburban Baltimore.

The new Pikesville, Md. store, separated by half a parking lot from its closed predecessor, is part of an unlikely twist: Barnes & Noble is conducting its biggest expansion in over a decade.

After years on the brink of extinction, the book chain plans to open around 30 new branches this year. Many are returning the retailer to areas it had previously abandoned. In a few, Barnes & Noble is even taking over former Amazon bookstores.

The retailer hopes this will turn a new leaf. Barnes & Noble sales are up, growing more than 4% over the past year, according to Shannon DeVito, director of books.

“What’s changed, I think, is my hope that we’re going to stay here for decades and decades,” she says.

The biggest change borrowed from independent bookstores

Barnes & Noble’s collapse spanned the 2010s: the archetypal big-box villain that ravaged independent bookstores eventually became lunch for Amazon. His online store lagged behind while his physical stores were overrun with gadgets, blankets, and trinkets to pursue every type of sale.

In 2019, Barnes & Noble was bought by a hedge fund, often a dangerous development. But that takeover brought with it a new CEO, James Daunt, who had spearheaded a seemingly miraculous turnaround at Britain’s largest bookseller, Waterstones.

Daunt urged Barnes & Noble stores to “clean out the junk.” The retailer has embraced TikTok’s BookTok and social media influencers and turned its dealings with publishers upside down. (The chain stopped accepting publisher payments for special exhibitions. It was easy money, but it often risked draining prime spots with unpopular books and incurring a string of expenses for the store.)

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The biggest change, borrowing from the playbook of independent bookstores: Daunt gave local Barnes & Noble stores much more authority to order what their readers want to see in their area.

It’s “frankly a huge shift in philosophy for us as a bookseller,” says DeVito.

“It’s not an algorithm. It’s not something that’s dynamically pulled from code,” she says. “It’s a great deal – I’ve read this, I loved it, I know this area really cares about beekeeping books so I’m going to create the best beekeeping display I can because this is my local shop.”

The chain took advantage of oddly favorable timing

Shortly after Daunt took the helm, the pandemic lockdowns shut down Barnes & Noble, followed by furloughs and layoffs. But the company also used this time to renovate the stores and refocus the business. Retail bankruptcies also created cheaper space for new stores.

Then 2021 set the record for book sales in the US, meaning the refreshed Barnes & Noble launched just when people were buying more books than ever before.

“We climbed Everest in 2021, the highest point ever in the book market,” said Kristen McLean, Managing Director of NPD BookScan. “And Barnes & Noble was in a perfect position to capitalize on that because they were this fresh energy … and consumers were really happy to be back in bookstores.”

The chain has continued to close some stores despite expanding into new ones. In Northern Virginia, Barnes & Noble will soon open its largest store in years at 28,000 square feet in a former office depot. The new Pikesville bookstore has a smaller city format and is housed in a former store at Pier 1.

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Shoppers scrutinize the store’s redesign

New stores get an almost complete makeover: lighter color, lighter wood, a new layout. Bookshelves are arranged in thematic corners rather than in rows of alphabetical stacks to encourage shoppers to linger, browse and maybe find something they didn’t know they wanted.

Friends Kendra Wallace and Audryana Pitts-Wright stopped by the Pikesville store looking for the latest Ebony magazine that Barnes & Noble didn’t carry.

“The look, feel is obviously different than a traditional Barnes & Noble – that’s what I noticed,” Pitts-Wright said. “But at the same time, it doesn’t really feel authentic. They’re trying to capture the more intimate, independent bookstore feel when it’s still just a Barnes & Noble.”

Despite this, Wallace left the store with a shopping bag. Inside were novels she had followed on social media and had on her list: Seven Days In June by Tia Williams and Tender Is The Flesh by Agustina Bazterrica.

“Should I have bought more books for my collection? Probably not,” Wallace said, and laughed. “I’m a reader.”

Barnes & Noble may not have sold the friends its new identity, but it did sell them some books.

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