The inexperienced carpet is gone. Darkish wooden cabinets are not in favor.
At many Barnes & Noble shops, the green-striped wallpaper and hunter-green partitions have been scraped away and painted over in sandy shades of white and pink because the nation’s largest brick-and-mortar bookseller pursues, in matches and begins, a back-to-basics, books-first technique.
Different shops can have a distinct look. The design of a brand new location within the New York Metropolis borough of Brooklyn reveals the polished concrete flooring from its previous life as a Barneys New York. A Barnes & Noble lately opened in California with cerulean partitions, and an experiment in robin’s egg blue is within the works for some East Coast places.
“Any design company would have a coronary heart assault if they might see what we’re doing,” stated James Daunt, the Barnes & Noble CEO. “We don’t have any architect doing our design at any stage. There’s no inside designer.”
“And definitely the id individuals would have an entire disaster,” Daunt continued, referring to branding consultants. “It’s breaking all the principles.”
Barnes & Noble has launched the brand new take a look at a number of dozen of its practically 600 places, together with the Higher West Aspect of Manhattan and the Grove shopping center in Los Angeles, and on the 20 new shops which have opened in 2023.
The outcome has been an idiosyncratic method to mass retail. Daunt, who describes himself as “an unbiased bookseller in background and ethos,” is pushing the chain to behave extra just like the indie shops it was as soon as infamous for displacing — and to embrace lighter, brighter interiors with modular cabinets designed for max flexibility.
Daunt proved his book-selling bona fides because the founding father of Daunt Books in London and, extra lately, as the manager who rescued Waterstones, Britain’s largest bookstore chain. The hedge fund Elliott Advisors took a majority stake in Waterstones in 2018; the following 12 months it purchased Barnes & Noble for $683 million and put in Daunt, a Cambridge-educated Brit, as its chief. (He’s nonetheless the managing director of Waterstones; the 2 chains function individually.)
Since he launched into the Barnes & Noble redesign in 2020, Daunt has demonstrated that consistency doesn’t rank very excessive on his precedence listing. New York Metropolis has 9 Barnes & Noble shops that includes 4 completely different logos above the entrance doorways. Two shops are new; one has been totally renovated; and the others have had some updates however are largely frozen in time, the still-functioning stays of bygone retail methods in an organization — and trade — that has undergone an upheaval.
Janine Flanigan, Barnes & Noble’s cheerfully fast-talking director of retailer planning, famous that the shop beneath its New York Metropolis headquarters in Union Sq. in Manhattan has remained largely unchanged because it opened in 1998. In a mode harking back to Ivy League libraries, the inside has forest-green carpeting and heavy wooden cabinets lined with ladders. “Union Sq. continues to be what our conventional bookstores have been 20 or 30 years in the past,” she stated, referring to the corporate’s heyday, a time earlier than Amazon dominated e-book promoting.
The Union Sq. retailer will not be scheduled for renovation as a result of, as Daunt put it, “it does completely effectively.” Not solely that, however change can be expensive: The cabinets are constructed into the partitions.
The revamped Higher West Aspect location is one other story. Main a tour on a latest morning, Flanigan demonstrated how the brand new cabinets clip right into a modular system, permitting managers to rearrange their shows in quite a few alternative ways. The cabinets even have variable depths in order that books of any dimension can line up neatly.
“Hangover simply doesn’t look good,” Flanigan stated, gesturing towards an oversize e-book that jutted past a shelf’s periphery. “It’s not comfy.”
Some fixtures might be snapped out of the wall and mixed into free-standing retailer shows; others have lips for vinyl information, hooks for tote luggage and rods for sheets of wrapping paper that may be at dwelling at an Anthropologie retailer. (Barnes & Noble lately acquired the greeting-card retailer Paper Supply, whose workers helped replace the look of the present part.)
The modular shelving system, which has similarities to the one at Waterstones, owes a debt to Feltrinelli, an Italian bookstore chain designed by late architect Miguel Sal, whom Daunt thought of a pal. “We’d get on airplanes and go go to shops,” he stated. The journeys — to the Taiwanese e-book retailer Eslite and quite a few Japanese e-book and stationery shops — influenced his method to structure and lighting, he added.
The outdated Barnes & Noble had what Daunt known as “fairly a masculine aesthetic,” a mode influenced by the “small little band that occurred to personal the corporate.”
“However I believe we’re significantly better off with one thing that’s shiny, that welcomes the world,” he stated.
The Higher West Aspect renovation price $4 million and is on monitor to pay for itself in a few years, in accordance with Daunt. “I’d be shocked if we don’t find yourself doubling its gross sales,” he stated. (Barnes & Noble, previously a public firm, doesn’t disclose its financials; it has been privately held since Elliott Advisors acquired it.) Subsequent month the chain plans to open its largest new-format retailer: a 35,000-square-foot location in Paramus, New Jersey.
On the time of the possession change, Barnes & Noble was in a state of tumult. To fend off Amazon, it had closed greater than 150 shops amid a sequence of management modifications. It additionally tried out a number of Hail Mary retail methods, all of which have been witnessed by Flanigan, who has labored for the corporate since 1985, beginning as a cashier when she was in highschool.
In its darkest hours, the shops started to resemble the low cost aisle at Spencer’s. A structure often called “the racetrack prototype” — which Flanigan recognized as “my least favourite design” — borrowed from big-box shops like Goal, with money registers by the door and impulse-purchase temptations across the perimeter. Solely after wading by way of a sea of tchotchkes would clients encounter books.
The racetrack’s designers didn’t perceive books, in Flanigan’s estimation. “It is advisable to love books, and you want to understand how our clients store for books,” she stated.
The brand new look goals to encourage searching, which Daunt believes improves buyer satisfaction. “In the event you simply wish to purchase a e-book, the blokes in Seattle will promote you a e-book,” Daunt stated. “The enjoyment and the social expertise of that engagement with books in a bookstore? That’s our recreation.”
The revamped places have separate alcoves for a wide range of topics and buyers. Providing an instance of two imaginary Barnes & Noble clients, Daunt described a historical past buff who’s seeking to choose up Simon Schama’s “Residents” and a chatty teenager nerding out on speculative younger grownup fiction. The revised structure permits them to buy collectively with out being on high of one another, he stated.
Author Glynnis MacNicol, who lives on the Higher West Aspect, described herself as “surprisingly thrilled” by the refreshed look of the neighborhood retailer. “This feels very books,” she stated, noting that, in recent times, her curiosity in Barnes & Noble had hardly ever gone past “Are the bogs working?”
Bookstores, in Daunt’s view, are basically completely different from different retail companies, partly due to the vary and variability of the merchandise. Beneath his management, native managers are given a free hand, that means that the Higher West Aspect retailer could supply a procuring expertise fairly completely different from the one in Spanish Fort, Alabama.
“The curious trick has been that for those who really let the native book-selling groups do what they assume is greatest, you abruptly get significantly better bookstores,” Daunt stated. Then he shortly added a caveat: “A couple of quarter of them develop into dramatically higher, and 1 / 4 develop into dramatically worse — however it’s a lot simpler to deal with that quarter and enhance them.”
Daunt believes in native experimentation to such an excessive diploma that final 12 months he allowed a Barnes & Noble in Oviedo, Florida, to alter its title. The Oviedo Mall is now the positioning of the nation’s one and solely B. Dalton Bookseller retailer, named after a series that Barnes & Noble acquired in 1987 and liquidated in 2010. In an indication of the corporate’s dedication to inconsistency, the situation now has a blue and pink B. Dalton Bookseller signal above the doorway — and Barnes & Noble-branded supplies inside.
“You flip what had been a really uniform however dying enterprise into one thing that’s way more unpredictable and dynamic,” Daunt stated, “and it begins to work.”
That’s the half that may have brand-identity specialists clutching their pearls. Reviewing photos of Barnes & Noble’s hodgepodge of logos, model designer Sagi Haviv of Chermayeff & Geismar & Haviv expressed each a keenness for the corporate and a few dismay with its inconsistent method.
“What they did is a disas—” he stated, his voice trailing off abruptly. After a pause, he concluded, “It leaves rather a lot to be desired.”
Joanne Chan, the CEO of the branding company Turner Duckworth, which in 1998 designed the emblem that Amazon makes use of to this present day, was equally baffled. However when advised of Daunt’s embrace of native idiosyncrasies, her curiosity was piqued.
The eyeglasses firm Warby Parker customizes shops with domestically impressed murals, she famous, including that hospitality chains equivalent to Ace Resort include appreciable variations inside a single model id. For Barnes & Noble to drag off that method, she stated, “they should stroll the stroll,” ideally by encouraging shops to interact with their communities.
One among Daunt’s first acts as CEO was to strip all shops of the footfall counters that many mass retailers use to tally the variety of clients and calculate gross sales charges. That transfer has reduce prices (monitoring clients is dear) and “liberated the bookstore managers, and everyone else, so they might simply consider being good,” he stated.
The change goes alongside along with his technique of embracing the mindset of his typical worker. “Booksellers are about as uncommercial a breed of individuals because it’s potential to return throughout,” Daunt stated. “The irony is that the much less involved we’re with the industrial, the higher it really works commercially.”
This text initially appeared in The New York Occasions.