I Trust My Booksellers to ‘Create Good Bookshops’

  • Sales at Barnes & Noble are rising because staff are it’s not trying to make stores “homogenous,” its CEO said.
  • James Daunt started running the chain, which has 600 stores across the US, in 2019.
  • “Sensible retailing principles” equal “terrible bookstores,” Daunt told the Business Studies podcast.

The CEO of Barnes & Noble said the retailer has prospered because it rejected the “sensible retailing principles” that made other chain bookstores “inherently boring.”

James Daunt told the podcast Business Studies that Barnes & Noble’s bookstores succeed when they’re unique and adaptable, and not “consistent” and “homogenous.”

The British business figure has been credited with saving Britain’s biggest bookstore chain, Waterstones, which he started running in 2011 when it was on the verge of bankruptcy.

He took over as CEO of Barnes & Noble in 2019 with plans to update the chain’s 600 stores across the US. Both chains are owned by Paul Singer’s investment management firm Elliott Advisors. 

By 2022, total sales at Barnes & Noble were 3% higher than pre-pandemic levels, with book sales up by 14%. It calls itself the world’s largest retail bookseller on its website and plans to open more than 30 new stores this year.

According to Daunt, big retailers — including Barnes & Noble before his arrival — “ran terrible bookstores” due to their commitment to “core retailing principles” that value “consistency.”

“If you walk into Zara, you want to have the Zara experience,” said Daunt. But doing so with bookstores, he said, result in a boring “blended average.”

He believed bookstores must cater for their local communities. “If you’re in Alabama, you should run a very different bookstore to if you’re on the Upper West Side of Manhattan,” he told Business Studies.

Doing that successfully meant listening to local voices and offering managers a level of autonomy, Daunt said.

“My central ethos and the central value that I bring to running these businesses is that I trust my booksellers,” he said in additional comments published in the newsletter Off to Lunch by Graham Ruddick, who also runs the Business Studies podcast.

“I’m a bookseller. It’s not me who creates good bookshops out there. I simply trust the individuals within each individual store to create good bookshops. All I do is constantly encourage that.”

Daunt said many retailers found that approach difficult to grasp: “That’s absolutely not what is in your DNA. It’s not what is in your retail training.”

Waterstones store in central London

A Waterstones store in central London.

Getty Images

He has used the same approach at Waterstones, where sales hit almost £400 million ($477 million) in the year to April 2022, also higher than pre-pandemic levels, The Bookseller reported. Profit soared from about £3 million to £42 million ($50 million). 

Daunt founded his own bookstore in 1990 at the age of 26, after quitting his job as a banker. He was appointed to run Waterstones in 2011 because its then-owner, Alexander Mamut, was a fan of his local Daunt Books in Holland Park, west London, per the Evening Standard.

Daunt was made an honorary fellow of the UK’s Royal Society of Literature in 2017, and was appointed a Commander of the British Empire (CBE) last year by the late Queen Elizabeth II for services to publishing. 

Despite its impact on bricks and mortar booksellers, Daunt told The Telegraph in 2019 that he had “nothing but the highest respect” for Amazon, but added: “We need to do our own thing, better.”

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