April 9, 2020
Barnes & Noble struggles to stay afloat; warehouse workers protest
by Mike Lindgren
In a publishing landscape devastated by the novel coronavirus and industry-wide shutdowns, famed chain retailer Barnes and Noble is being hit especially hard.
According to Publishers Weekly, the superchain has closed most of its stores and laid off or furloughed the majority of its employees, leaving only a skeleton crew to handle online fulfillment.
Unlike independent stores, some of whom are able to rely on close-knit neighborhood support, many B&Ns are based in malls and other exurban spaces, which do not typically generate a loyal customer base. The company’s image has been further hurt by a series of protests by New Jersey warehouse workers affected by safety issues surrounding the coronavirus.
The COVID-19 crisis comes at a particularly bad time for the retailer, which was purchased last year after years of disappointing sales performance by hedge fund Elliott Advisors, which is owned by noted corporate raider Paul Singer. The management’s first move was to hire legendary English bookseller James Daunt, who had overseen the turnaround of UK chain Waterstone’s.
Daunt was widely seen to be making great progress in reinvigorating the store’s so-called brand, which had suffered under lackluster management, a loss of focus, and a deterioration of merchandising and retail environments.
Some longtime independent booksellers cannot help but think of B&N as the swaggering juggernaut that posed an existential threat to so many indies in the 1990s and 2000s, but the truth of the matter is that the book industry badly needs a healthy Barnes and Noble. For many communities, B&N is the only bookstore in town, and the consensus is that physical sales of print books remain the backbone of the industry’s profit margins.
Daunt says that B&N is taking advantage of the pandemic shutdown to give some of its stores a much-needed makeover. Whether they will survive for the public to see the fruits of the renovations remains to be seen.
Michael Lindgren is the Managing Editor at Melville House.