Well, it’s official.
In early August, James Daunt and his UK hedge fund Elliott Advisors handed over an enormous lump sum of money and completed the purchase of Barnes & Noble, the last giant retail bookstore chain in the United States. Daunt, already the CEO of Waterstones in Britain, paid $683 million and took ownership of B&N’s 627 stores; he’ll move to New York City and take control of the company pretty much immediately.
Business journalists all over America began commenting on brutal numbers involved. And right alongside those business journalists, the roiling chum-bucket of Twitter was predicting the Apocalypse: hedge funds only ever act in the same way, they said: they load up a derelict company with excessive debt, chop it up, sell it off for parts, and then send off all the top executives with fat bonuses. Many moribund retail chains were summoned as examples of the fate awaiting Barnes & Noble.
The ready counter-argument is Daunt’s own track record. He pulled Waterstones back from the brink of financial ruin and made the whole chain feel genuinely refreshed. No typical hedge fund chop-and-drop. And in interview after interview, Daunt sounds like a normal human being – even a bookseller – rather than the kind of soulless buzzword-spounting corporate drone that’s crowded B&N’s upper management for well over 15 years.
In short, James Daunt and Elliott Advisors have already had a chance to gut and dump a large retail bookstore chain, and they did just the opposite. True, Barnes & Noble represents a much bigger target, but even so: it’s not delusional to think Daunt may be looking to replicate his UK success rather than invert it.
It’s a big question, because it’s a big subject. Barnes & Noble may have been vilified by small independent bookshops (and at least one Hollywood hit movie) over the years, but the fact remains that these were big, well-lit, well-stocked bookstores peppered all across the country, including in many locations where there wasn’t another bookstore within a hundred miles. B&N’s predatory retail practices won it few friends, but once all its fellow bookstore chains went out of business, it became the last enormous redoubt for the American bookselling experience. Every publishing representative echoed the same sentiment: if Barnes & Noble actually went out of business, the loss would deal a crippling blow to the entire book industry.
For me, it can’t help but feel like a big question on a personal level as well. I worked for 20 years at the big Barnes & Noble that once operated in downtown Boston on Washington Street. It was an old, ramshackle building with freight elevators that seemed to date from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a rat-infested back alley for deliveries, and an air conditioning system that liked to take summers off, and although it was one of the earliest B&N stores, for most of its life it had plenty of bookselling company there in Downtown Crossing, with a B. Dalton around the corner, an enormous Waterstones just up the street, and a liberal smattering of specialty and second-hand bookshops within easy walking distance.
That old store was a special place. For a staff, it attracted the usual bookstore assortment of shifty loners, unsocialized weirdos, pompous students, and serious book-folk, and that staff served a very large, bustling crowd of customers, particularly during the intense lunch-rush from noon to 2 every weekday, when all the die-hard readers in the surrounding businesses in those pre-Internet days flocked to the store’s tables to browse and to the store’s Information Desk to get clarifications, recommendations, and justifications for every literary indulgence. We all spent the last two decades of the 20th century working and laughing and reading our hearts out in that dear old dump, and although we didn’t know it, huge forces were gathering to make our time there the end of an era.
One of those forces was the wholesale invasion of the book world by the business world. It was in the 1990s that giant multinational conglomerates like Bertelsmann began buying and merging publishing houses, creating unwieldy creatures like Penguin Random House or Bantam Doubleday Dell and, more importantly, creating the concept that bookstores should behave like multinational conglomerates. Suddenly, there were store managers and district managers who talked in business-speak (“surfacing” issues, “going forward,” “taking” meetings, etc.) and proudly knew nothing about books. Suddenly, “bottom line”-style decisions started getting normalized.
And the second force was of course the Internet. Gradually, those same lunch-rush customers didn’t need to come to Barnes & Noble on their lunch hour in order to a) find out which book just won their favorite award or b) buy that book – they could do it all from their desk. B. Dalton’s closed down, and then Waterstones did too. Almost all the little shops vanished. And eventually, that old store closed its doors, although a bright, new, shiny B&N still operated across town.
Barnes & Noble wasn’t in superb shape before James Daunt came along. The company had closed 400 stores since 1997 and, according to the New York Times, it lost $1 billion in its market value in the last five years alone – and it’s tough not to think that state of affairs is largely a result of mismanagement.
Can new management change that? It’s too soon to know. But we should all hope that Daunt & company do for Barnes & Noble what they did for Waterstones. The book world needs this new book deal.
Steve Donoghue is a book reviewer and editor living in Boston (with his inquisitive little Schnauzer Frieda). His work has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and Kirkus Reviews, and he writes regularly for the Christian Science Monitor, the National, and the Martha’s Vineyard Gazette. He is a proud Weathersfield Proctor Library patron.