For the last 30 years or so, James Daunt has seen it all in the book world — the rise and fall of bookstore chains, the demise of independent bookstores, and the limited success of online booksellers. What he’s done with this observation is curate the perfect recipe for success for bookstore chains, handpicking his ingredients from personal experience as an independent bookseller.
Daunt is best-known as CEO of Barnes & Noble, the beloved bookstore chain with an excellent selection of books, a cozy cafe to pick up a quick snack, and friendly staff recommending their favorite reads to you. Part of why Barnes & Noble is doing so well is because Daunt applied the rules of your local neighborhood bookstore to the enormous chain bookstore, which is why he was appointed in charge of the company in 2019.
What exactly did Daunt do?
Simply put, Daunt wants to give each Barnes & Noble store owner the autonomy to decide which books to display in store based on local demographics of buyers in the area. He took full advantage of temporarily shuttered stores during the pandemic to physically and inventorily remodel bookstores, inviting local booksellers to provide feedback.
“Forget about trying to have every book. Instead, focus on particular subjects and curate the very best.”— Daunt
The key to any bookstore’s success, whether a chain bookstore or an independently owned one, is allowing booksellers to curate the selection based on personal interests, Daunt says, which evidently leads to more engaged workers and a quirky, inviting atmosphere within the store.
That’s where booksellers like Amazon lose out. Sure, they bring to consumers efficiency and convenience, not to mention millions of titles across a plethora of genres. However, at the end of the day, Amazon bookstores are “essentially soulless” and “very unimaginative,” Daunt said. The lack of success with its physical bookstores led to all 68 of them being shut down across the United States and United Kingdom.
Ironically, Barnes & Noble opened two of its stores where Amazon bookstores formerly stood, and the company is actively looking for more shuttered Amazon stores to move into. Recently, Barnes & Noble announced the addition of 30 more stores across the U.S., adding to the fleet of 600 existing stores. And, in keeping with the personal touch mantra, Barnes & Noble launched a new membership program to better understand consumers’ interests and promote to them accordingly.
Early Successes and Recognition
How does a chain bookstore CEO know what independent bookstores get right with their model? Daunt himself is the owner of a handful of independent bookstores in London, U.K. The first Daunt Books opened in 1990 when he was in his twenties, followed by another five at various locations across London. Just before being called across the Atlantic Ocean to save Barnes & Noble, Daunt was appointed managing director of British book retailer Waterstones, reviving it from the slow demise it had fallen into.
Daunt’s unparalleled success in the book industry led to him being bestowed with the prestigious title of CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire) at Queen Elizabeth’s 2022 Birthday Honours. The blueprint for success he created is a feat many booksellers should turn to should they find themselves in troubled waters.
To learn more about independent booksellers, read here.