How Barnes & Noble Bounced Back From An Almost Untimely Demise

After nearly collapsing in 2019 when Barnes & Noble sold itself to a hedge fund, the company is enjoying a comeback in what is coming to be known in the retail industry as a big-box revival.

By Kari Apted | Published

barnes & noble

Former book retail giant Barnes & Noble is making a remarkable comeback in 2023. After over a decade of shuttering locations across the country, the company has plans to open 30 new stores this year. The new locations will have a smaller footprint than older locations and focus more on books than other types of merchandise.

Barnes & Noble joins ToysRUs, Burlington, and other retailers in what The Wall Street Journal calls a big-box retail revival. “We’ve now got both the profitability and the confidence to start opening up stores again,” Barnes & Noble CEO James Daunt told The Wall Street Journal. Once vilified as the evil megastore that drove small, family-owned bookstores out of business, Barnes & Noble is enjoying its new status as an underdog hero, coming back to satisfy the needs of true book lovers.

At its peak around 2008, Barnes & Noble had about 725 locations. Since then, the company closed 150 locations and repeatedly shifted its management and strategies. In 2019, the bookseller was vulnerable to total collapse when it sold to a hedge fund for $628 million—a milestone in its timeline that contributes to its current perception as an underdog.

Barnes & Noble is now owned by Elliott Advisors, a London-based investment firm. It acquired the United State’s largest bookseller shortly after purchasing Waterstones, the largest retail bookseller in the United Kingdom. Daunt used a similar playbook to revive both the Waterstones and Barnes & Noble brands.

Daunt started by giving individual stores the autonomy needed to function like local shops instead of adhering to a megastore cookie-cutter vision. This resulted in smaller, welcoming, well-designed stores that fit the surrounding area’s needs. Daunt also moved both book chains away from selling gifts and non-book impulse items and eliminated deal-making with publishers to feature certain books in exchange for a fee.

Some speculate Barnes & Noble’s revival is at least in part sparked by post-pandemic nostalgia for the in-person shopping experience. Lockdowns wreaked a particularly harsh type of havoc across the retail sector. However, it also made people realize what they appreciated about being able to shop for goods at brick-and-mortar stores instead of being forced to buy everything online.

An article published by FastCompany quoted New York Times publishing reporter Alexandra Alter’s comments about the revival of physical book retail establishments. “In the last couple of years, more than 300 new bookstores have opened up across the country, and a lot of younger, more diverse owners are coming into the business,” said Alter. “And that’s a very exciting and enriching thing that is pretty new and was a side effect in some odd way of the pandemic.”

Barnes & Noble’s future isn’t as grim as it appeared to be before the pandemic. Fears that the demand for print books would be obliterated by e-books never materialized. In fact, it’s estimated that 75% of publisher sales revenue still comes from the purchase of physical books.

Ted Goia, the author of the popular culture newsletter The Honest Broker, calls Daunt a true book lover. He feels that love is the key to culture-related businesses. “Creative fields like music and writing live and die based on creativity, not financial statements and branding deals,” Goia said. More pragmatic people may feel that financial statements actually matter more than love. However, a return to the warmer, local book store experience seems to be working out well for Barnes & Noble. Book lovers everywhere hope that their favorite way to pass a rainy afternoon has returned to stay.