Opening a new bookstore is always an act of optimism: a determined belief that many people still prefer to pick books from an actual shelf or table and buy them while exchanging jokes or book recommendations. with a real person. But when the new bookstore is a Barnes & Noble, a national chain that has closed three stores in the Seattle area in recent years, it’s not just optimism, but a vast reset, which draws its tenets from small. independent bookstores.
Barnes & Noble, whose new branch officially opens Wednesday at the Village at Totem Lake in Kirkland, is not an independent; he is possessed, since 2019, by the same UK private equity firm that owns UK bookstore chain Waterstones. But its current CEO, James Daunt, has started running his own bookstore (he still owns Daunt Books in London). Since taking over the reins of Barnes & Noble almost two years ago, his goal has been to transform the business by giving local staff more control over the stores. It’s a successful strategy for the Waterstones chain, which Daunt also chairs, and he’s encouraged by his early results in US stores.
“What I think we should be able to do at Barnes & Noble is use the resources and capabilities of a large bookstore, but leverage them effectively in a culture that is much more independent of spirit, ”he said in a telephone interview from New York. week. This means, he explained, that bookstore managers are inspired by their customers to choose which items to store and have a lot more leeway to display them.
Giving this freedom to stores – a process that began last year, when many stores closed during the pandemic used up time to reorganize inventory – has been good for business, Daunt said. During his tenure, he said Barnes & Noble’s return to publishers rate – bookstore business is structured around returning books that don’t sell – fell from around 25% to 10-12. % percent. “We will continue to lower it,” he said. “Waterstones was around 3%. Which I think corresponds to the level that a library should be. “
And why reopening in the Seattle area, where the West Seattle, Issaquah, and downtown Barnes & Noble stores were closed so recently? “It’s a great place for communities that read, that are engaged and well-educated – all of the things you’d expect to support a successful bookstore,” he said. Previous closures were largely due to real estate issues – leases, redevelopment – “and of course the stores were getting pretty old,” he said. “If you want to remain a dynamic retailer, you have to open (new stores) because you’re always going to be closing, frankly.”
The past decades have been difficult for Barnes & Noble, whose business model has struggled since Amazon’s arrival in the 1990s. Barnes & Noble currently has 607 stores (including Kirkland), with three more scheduled to open. this summer. This is down from its peak of 1,046 stores in 1996 (although most of these stores have a “low profile” format which has since been phased out).
In the shiny new Totem Lake store, located between a bustling Whole Foods and equally busy Trader Joe’s, manager Dave Rossiter, a 17-year-old Barnes & Noble employee who previously ran the Issaquah store, led a tour of the available weekly. Its 8,200 square feet does not contain straight rows of shelves, but room-shaped nooks for each genre. In these corners are thousands of books, a small selection of DVDs, puzzles and gifts, and a cafe.
Rossiter said the store currently employs around 22 people, most of them part-time. While researching retail hiring experience, he said his first interview question was always a variation of “tell me why you are so passionate about reading.” You can see this passion in the store: dozens of handwritten cards dot the shelves, with enthusiastic recommendations from booksellers. (A charming – and accurately – refers to an edition of William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” as the “original emo.”) This is a typical show from an independent bookstore, but one that would not have been seen in an old-fashioned Barnes & Noble – part of Daunt’s goal of creating “bookstores with a real local personality”.
While Daunt acknowledged that many of these positions will be at or near minimum wage, he said the company is in the process of changing its employment structure for its stores. In the old days, a Barnes & Noble store had a number of minimum wage workers and then a big pay rise for the few who became managers or assistant managers. The new structure adds rungs on the ladder – senior bookseller, senior bookseller, expert bookseller – with higher salaries at each stage, to allow “young people to launch and pursue a career in bookstore,” he said. -he declares. This would, in all likelihood, mean fewer employees per store, but more full-time and better paid employees.
The reverberations of a new and important bookstore in the chain are being felt not only by potential customers, but also by local booksellers, especially the few that are currently on Eastside. Daunt says he makes a point of not opening new Barnes & Noble stores in areas already served by independent stores – “I celebrate the opening of independents as much as I do our stores, and we don’t. will never compete directly, ”he said. But while no local indie can be found in the immediate vicinity of the Totem Lake location, two are a short distance away: BookTree in Kirkland and Brick & Mortar Books in Redmond, about 4 and 5 miles away, respectively.
“Of course I hope the impact on BookTree sales will be minimal, but there’s really no way to know that,” said owner Chris Jarmick. “I’m a little concerned that we don’t see as many new customers looking for a bookstore, which could impact the number of new loyal customers we add to our BookTree family. … It is important that people know how fragile a small business really is and will continue to support BookTree. “
Dan Ullom, owner of Brick & Mortar, expressed his optimism. “Another bookstore opening in the area is a positive tide, a rising tide that lifts all ships,” he said. “We hope their openness will inspire more people to become readers and inspire current readers to learn more.”