The green carpet is gone. Dark wood cabinets are no longer in favor.
At many Barnes & Noble stores, the green-striped wallpaper and hunter-green walls have been removed and painted sandy shades of white and pink, as the nation’s largest brick-and-mortar bookseller, Fit & In the start, one follows behind. -Back-to-basics, books-first strategy.
The look of other shops will be different. The design of a new location in Brooklyn reveals the polished concrete floors of Barneys New York’s past life. Barnes & Noble recently opened in California with mud walls, and an experiment with robin’s egg blue is underway for some locations on the East Coast.
James Daunt, chief executive of Barnes & Noble, said, “Any design agency would have a heart attack if they saw what we were doing.” “We don’t have an architect creating our design at any level. There is no interior designer.”
“And of course the identity people are going to have an absolute crisis,” Mr Daunt continued, referring to branding consultants. “It’s breaking all the rules.”
Barnes & Noble has revamped several dozen of its nearly 600 locations, including locations on Manhattan’s Upper West Side and The Grove shopping malls in Los Angeles, and 20 new stores scheduled to open in 2023.
The result has been a unique approach to mass retailing. Mr Daunt, who describes himself as “an independent bookseller in background and ethos”, is pushing the chain to work more like the indie stores that were once notorious for being dislocated – and with maximum flexibility. Embrace light, bright interiors with modular shelves designed for .
Mr. Daunt proved his book-selling bona fides as the founder of Daunt Books in London and, more recently, as the executive who saved Waterstones, Britain’s largest bookstore chain. Hedge fund Elliott Advisors took a majority stake in Waterstones in 2018; The following year it bought Barnes & Noble for $683 million and appointed Mr. Daunt, a Cambridge-educated Briton, as its leader. (He is still managing director of Waterstones; the two chains operate separately.)
Since he initiated the Barnes & Noble redesign in 2020, Mr. Daunt has demonstrated that sustainability is not very high on his priority list. There are nine Barnes & Noble stores in New York City that have four different logos above their front doors. Two of the stores are new; One has been completely renovated; And others have had a few updates but are mostly frozen in time, still-functioning vestiges of past retail strategies in a company and industry that has been in turmoil.
Janine Flanigan, Barnes & Noble’s fast-talking director of store planning, said the store below its headquarters in Union Square in Manhattan has remained largely unchanged since it opened in 1998. In a style reminiscent of Ivy League libraries, the interior has jungle-green carpet and heavy wooden cabinets lined with stairs. “Union Square is still what our traditional bookstores were 20 or 30 years ago,” he said, referring to the company’s heyday, a time before Amazon dominated book sales.
The Union Square store is not scheduled for renovation because, as Mr. Daunt said, “It works perfectly well.” Not only that, but the change would be expensive: The cabinets are built into the walls.
The renovated Upper West Side location is another story. Leading a tour on a recent morning, Ms. Flanigan demonstrated how the new cabinets connect into a modular system, allowing managers to arrange their displays in many different ways. The shelves also have variable depth so books of any size can line up neatly.
“A hangover doesn’t taste good,” Ms. Flanigan said, pointing to an oversized book that stuck out beyond the outer edge of a shelf. “It’s not comfortable.”
Some fixtures can be removed from the wall and added to a free-standing store display; Others have lips for vinyl records, hooks for tote bags and rods for sheets of wrapping paper that would be available at home in Anthropologie stores. (Barnes & Noble recently acquired greeting-card retailer Paper Source, whose employees helped update the look of the gift section.)
The modular shelving system, which is similar to that of Waterstones, is a debt to Feltrinelli, an Italian bookstore chain designed by the late architect Miguel Sal, whom Mr. Daunt considered a friend. “We’ll get on airplanes and visit stores,” he said. Visits to the Taiwanese book retailer Eslite and several Japanese book and stationery stores, he said, influenced his approach to layout and lighting.
The old Barnes & Noble had what Mr. Daunt called “quite a masculine aesthetic,” a style influenced by the “small bands that the company owned.”
“But I think we’re much better off with something that’s bright, that’s welcoming to the world,” he said.
According to Mr. Daunt, the renovation of the Upper West Side cost $4 million and is on track to pay for itself in a few years. “I would be surprised if we don’t double its sales,” he said. (Barnes & Noble, formerly a public company, does not disclose its financials; it has been privately held since being acquired by Elliott Advisors.) The chain plans to open its largest new-format store next month. Building: 35,000 square foot location Paramus, NJ
At the time of the ownership change, Barnes & Noble was in a state of turmoil. To fend off Amazon, it had closed more than 150 stores amid a series of leadership changes. It also tried some Hail Mary retail strategies, all of which were envisioned by Ms. Flanigan, who has worked for the company since 1985, starting as a cashier when she was in high school.
At their worst, stores began to resemble the discount aisle of Spencer’s. A layout known as the “racetrack prototype”—which Ms. Flanigan identified as “my least favorite design”—was borrowed from big-box stores like Target, with cash registers near the door and a perimeter. There were impulse-buy temptations all around. Customers will get the books only after passing through the sea of tricks.
In Ms. Flanigan’s estimation, the racetrack designers did not understand books. “You have to love books and you have to know how our customers shop for books,” he said.
The new look aims to encourage browsing, which Mr Daunt believes improves customer satisfaction. “If you just want to buy a book, people in Seattle will sell you a book,” Mr. Daunt said. “The joy and social experience of engaging with books in a bookstore? This is our game.”
The renovated spaces have different themes and different niches for buyers. Offering the example of two fictional Barnes & Noble customers, Mr. Daunt described a history buff who wants to pick up Simon Schama’s “Citizens” and a talkative teen who is focusing on speculative YA fiction. The modified layout allows them to shop together without climbing over each other, he said.
Writer Glynis MacNicol, who lives on the Upper West Side, described herself as “surprisingly thrilled” with the neighborhood store’s refreshed look. “it feels great books,” she said, noting that, in recent years, her interest in Barnes & Noble has rarely extended beyond “Are the bathrooms working?”
In Mr Daunt’s view, bookshops are fundamentally different from other retail businesses, partly because of the range and variability of products. Under his leadership, local managers have been given free rein, meaning the Upper West Side store can offer a vastly different shopping experience from the store in Spanish Fort, Ala.
“The strange thing is that if you actually let local book-selling teams do what they do best, you suddenly get much better bookshops,” Mr Daunt said. Then he quickly added a caveat: “About a quarter of them get dramatically better, and a quarter get dramatically worse – but it’s much easier to focus on that quarter and improve them.”
Mr. Daunt believes in local experimentation so much that last year he gave permission for Barnes & Noble in Oviedo, Florida, to change its name. Oviedo Mall is now the only mall in the country B Dalton Bookseller The store, named after the chain that Barnes & Noble acquired in 1987 and ended in 2010. In a demonstration of the company’s commitment to inconsistency, the location now features a blue and red B. Dalton Bookseller sign above the entrance—and Barnes & Noble-branded merchandise within.
“You turn a very similar but dying business into something that’s much more unpredictable and dynamic,” Mr. Daunt said, “and it starts working.”
This is the part where brand-identity experts will clutch their pearls. Reviewing images of the Barnes & Noble logo, Chermayeff and Geismar and brand designer Sagi Haviv of Haviv expressed both fondness for the company and some frustration with its inconsistent approach.
He said, “What they did was wrong—” His voice suddenly trailed off. After a pause he concluded, “There’s still a lot left in it.”
Joan Chan, chief executive of branding agency Turner Duckworth, who in 1998 designed the logo that Amazon uses to this day, was similarly astonished. But when Mr Daunt was told about local specialties, he became interested.
While glasses company Warby Parker customizes stores with locally inspired murals, he said hospitality chains like Ace Hotels have plenty of variations within the same brand identity. For Barnes & Noble to pursue that vision, he said, “they have to go down this path,” ideally encouraging stores to engage with their communities.
One of Mr Daunt’s first acts as chief executive was to remove footfall counters from all stores, which many large retailers used to tally customer numbers and calculate sales rates. The move, he said, cut costs (keeping track of customers is expensive) and “freed up bookstore managers and everyone else so they could just focus on being good.”
This change goes hand in hand with their strategy of adopting their unique employee mindset. Mr. Daunt said, “Booksellers are about as non-professional a class of people as is possible.” “The irony is that the less we worry about advertising, the better it works commercially.”