How Should We Feel About Barnes & Noble Now?

When I realized my childhood Barnes & Noble was closing, I was devastated. I’m an indie bookstore lover, but growing up, there were no indie bookstores in my town: only one gorgeous, cozy Barnes & Noble. We went to book clubs there as kids, met there as teens basically every Friday night, studied for the SATs there, got coffee there to catch up over summers home from college. It held tons of concentrated memories.

The good news was that it was simply moving, not closing for good. It would have a new location and be one of the first “new Barnes & Noble stores” using their new layout, approach, and model. But was that good news?

Let’s back up. Years ago, there was a push to support indies over mega chains, but in recent years, Amazon’s threat has changed the story somewhat, leading many book lovers (me included) to acknowledge that Barnes & Noble, as one of the few remaining brick-and-mortar chains, is still a preferable option over Amazon. They’ve made some headway over the past couple years as they once again spin to becoming the “hero” of the story, the big-box store that outlasted and survived Amazon, proving our love of physical locations and physical books despite the odds.

However, their new attempts to rejuvenate their stores are a way to appropriate the warm coziness and trust we have in an indie bookstore while taking away the mechanics of an indie on the back end. The maze-like layout is meant to be a “curated, cozy, and welcoming space for communities to work, read and browse.” But while branding and new layouts may seem innocent, anyone who has worked in the business world knows that it’s often more complicated than it appears.

After Barnes & Noble was sold to a hedge fund in 2019, owners Elliott Advisors brought in James Daunt, the chief executive of UK chain Waterstones (owned by the same company, I should add). His strategy for saving Barnes & Noble included giving local stores more individualized flexibility to choose what they sell based on local demand, moving away from the gifts and toys section, moving locations into smaller physical spaces, and redesigning the stores.

It’s not a coincidence that Barnes & Noble sought to capture something of what the indies were bringing to the table. Over the pandemic, books boomed, but so did a certain nostalgia for physical spaces and for wandering and browsing in-person. Indie bookstores benefited from this, and new ones have been popping up all over the country over the last few years. Barnes & Noble wants to take advantage of this moment.

But all moments aren’t created equal. As Jenn Northington unpacked in her piece in 2022, there was a 12.4% drop in hardcover sales from 2021 to 2022. And in 2022, Twitter buzzed with the realization that Barnes & Noble’s new policy seemed to be to stock only hardcovers that had “proven sales” records, making it harder for debut authors, “genre” authors, and authors traditionally neglected by the industry (people of color, queer and trans authors, disabled authors, etc.) to be discovered.

Northington says it best:

“If the only hardcovers you can find at your local branch are also the ones that are on the bestseller list, which are also the ones getting marketing dollars, which are also the ones that the algorithms are suggesting to you online, then the chances of, say, a debut author from a marginalized community getting their book in front of your face long enough for you to see it and consider buying it are lower than ever.”

Some argue that it’s okay because B&N will still sell a more diverse selection of paperbacks — these rules are only for hardcover releases. But how can you get a paperback printing if your hardcover doesn’t sell? And how can your hardcover sell if a bookseller won’t sell it unless you can prove it will sell in advance?

Barnes & Noble is trying to capture the wonder of wandering your local indie bookstore, while simultaneously narrowing how much you could possibly discover. It wants you to think that it’s as personal and local as your independent bookstore would be, while showing you the same five books you’ve already seen blasted all over BookTok. They’ll continue to get that good bestseller money while convincing people that they’re in a community space.

They recently changed their membership model and in the process, quietly ended their Educator Program. This gave teachers 20% off books, toys, and games for classroom use. When they sunsetted the program, they suggested these teachers just sign up for their new membership program, which costs $40 a year and gives 10% off.

The implication is obvious. Barnes & Noble is trying to improve their bottom line. Which is fine: a bookstore is a business, and a chain needs to make money to keep stores open. What I don’t like is that they are quietly prioritizing profits in ways that hurt the goals of the literary community while also pushing this vision of Barnes & Noble as your local indie that supports your community and is a haven for readers. They are putting on the costume and language of a pretty neighborhood independent bookstore, but their inner mechanics are still all big-box chain corporation. They’re trying to disguise their profit-driven corporate decisions behind pretty warm-lit curtains.

I recently walked through my local Barnes & Noble, moved and changed as it is. For all of its changes, it felt somehow colder than the old, slightly outdated wood and green carpeting. The science fiction and fantasy section had the most popular authors, and nothing I hadn’t yet heard about lay on the display tables. There were two gigantic shelves full of books and merch from a 2000s fantasy series in the YA section. It was surprisingly difficult to find anything.

In recent years, I’ve made sure to buy something from my local store, to keep it going. It was my local bookstore after all, and I wanted it to stay. Now, there’s no need. Even if I could find something I wanted (which I actually struggled to do), I’m saving my money for my local indies back in Chicago.

I’m back to feeling like supporting Barnes & Noble is no different from supporting those silly Amazon Books brick and mortars. It’s a pretty store to browse, if you aren’t actually looking for something new to read. It’s a local bookstore set with no substance — the dedication to the community isn’t there, the depth of book selection isn’t there, the discovery is just based in the bestseller lists. Some people don’t have a choice about where to browse, and growing up, I was one of them. I’m glad that I grew up in the age of a different kind of Barnes & Noble, and am disappointed in what they’re becoming.

For more on the new Barnes & Noble, check out recent stories from Jenn Northington on the background of the chain’s changes, and from Kelly Jensen on the membership program overhaul.