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How Barnes & Noble turned a page, expanding for the first time in years

Barnes & Noble opened this new store in Pikesville, Md., as it began its biggest expansion in years.
Alina Selyukh
Barnes & Noble opened this new store in Pikesville, Md., as it began its biggest expansion in years.

The ghost of Barnes & Noble past meets the spirit of Barnes & Noble future in a single shopping center in a suburb of Baltimore.

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

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

The retailer hopes this will turn a new leaf. Barnes & Noble sales have been rising, and last year grew more than 4%, according to Shannon DeVito, director of books.

"What has changed is, I think, my hope that we're going to be here for decades and decades and decades now," she says.

The biggest change borrowed from indie bookstores

Barnes & Noble's collapse spanned the 2010s: The archetypal big-box villain ravaging independent bookstores eventually became lunch for Amazon. Its online store lagged behind, while its physical stores got overrun by gadgets, blankets and trinkets in pursuit of any kind of sale.

In 2019, Barnes & Noble was bought out by a hedge fund, often a perilous development. But this buyout brought along a new CEO, James Daunt, who had led a seemingly miraculous turnaround of the U.K.'s largest bookstore chain Waterstones.

Daunt pushed for Barnes & Noble stores to "weed out the rubbish" from their shelves. The retailer has embraced TikTok's BookTok and social-media influencers, and shook up its deals with publishers. (The chain stopped accepting publishers' payments for special displays. This was quick money, but often risked saddling prime spots with unpopular books and triggering a series of costs for the store.)

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

It's "a huge shift, frankly, in philosophy for us as a bookseller," DeVito says. "It's not an algorithm. It's not something that's dynamically pulled from a code. It's very much a — I read this, I loved it, I know this area really gravitates towards beekeeping books, so I'm going to create the best beekeeping display I can because this is my local store."

The chain took advantage of oddly opportune timing

Not long after Daunt took helm, the pandemic lockdowns left Barnes & Noble shuttered, followed by furloughs and layoffs. But the company also used that time to renovate the stores and recalibrate the business. Retail bankruptcies created cheaper space for new stores, too.

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

"We scaled Everest in 2021, the highest point ever in the book market," said Kristen McLean, executive director of NPD BookScan. "And Barnes & Noble was in a perfect position to capitalize on that because they were that fresh energy ... and consumers were really happy to be back in bookstores."

The chain has continued to close some stores even as it expanded 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 space. The new Pikesville bookshop has a smaller city format, inside a former Pier 1 store.

The store makeover faces scrutiny from shoppers

New stores get a near-total makeover: brighter paint, lighter wood, a new layout. Bookshelves get arranged not in rows of alphabetical stacks but in thematic nooks, meant 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 in search of the latest Ebony magazine, which this Barnes & Noble did not carry.

"The look, the feel is obviously different than a traditional Barnes & Noble — that I did notice," 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."

Still, Wallace left the store with a shopping bag. Inside were novels she'd 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 on its new identity, but it did sell them some books.

Editor's note: Ebony has switched to digital-only publication and, with the exception of some special editions, stopped printing magazines in 2019.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alina Selyukh is a business correspondent at NPR, where she follows the path of the retail and tech industries, tracking how America's biggest companies are influencing the way we spend our time, money, and energy.