I Trust My Booksellers to ‘Make Good Bookshops’

  • Barnes & Noble’s sales are up because staff aren’t trying to make the stores “homogenous,” its CEO said.
  • James Daunt began operating the chain, which has 600 stores across the US, in 2019.
  • “Sane marketing principles” are the same as “terrible bookstores,” Daunt told the Business Studies podcast.

Barnes & Noble’s CEO said the retailer thrived because it rejected “smart retailing principles” that made other chain bookstores “inherently boring.”

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

The British business figure is 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 a plan 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, Barnes & Noble’s total sales will be 3% higher than pre-pandemic levels, with book sales up 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, major retailers — including Barnes & Noble before his arrival — “run terrible bookstores” because of their commitment to “core retailing principles” that value “consistency.”

“When you go to Zara, you want to experience Zara,” says Daunt. But doing it in bookstores, he said, would result in a boring “blended average.”

He believes that bookstores should care about their local community. “If you’re in Alabama, you have to run a very different bookstore than if you’re on the Upper West Side of Manhattan,” he told Business Studies.

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

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

“I’m a bookseller. I don’t create good bookshops out there. I just trust individuals within each individual store to create good bookshops. What I do is always encourage that.”

Daunt said many retailers find the approach difficult to grasp: “That’s not what’s in your DNA. It’s not what’s in your retail training.”

Waterstones store in central London

A Waterstones store in central London.

Getty Images

He used the same approach at Waterstones, where sales hit nearly £400 million ($477 million) in the year to April 2022, also higher than pre-pandemic levels, The Bookseller reported. Profits rose 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 previous owner, Alexander Mamut, was a fan of his local Daunt Books in Holland Park, west London, according to 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 brick-and-mortar booksellers, Daunt told The Telegraph in 2019 that he had “nothing but the utmost respect” for Amazon, but added: “We have to our own thing, much better.”

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