Rumors Greatly Exaggerated

In the early '90s, I got a job as assistant manager of the medical department at the Barnes & Noble flagship store on 5th Avenue in Manhattan. I sold medical textbooks to residents and nursing students; I sold stethoscopes and calipers. I hazed new staffers with forensic pathology and dermatology slides. I made "signage" out of BISAC categories.

The store was a weird mix. On the one hand, it was a textbook shop for NYU and other New York City colleges. On the other, it was the original Barnes & Noble, and something of a tourist attraction. So it sold trade titles and bestsellers in addition to fulfilling the syllabi of local professors.

Unlike the superstores, this shop was cavernous, with low ceilings and unbelievably creaky wooden floors. There were mice - mostly in the overstock areas, but occasionally one would make its way out to the sales floor, cough miserably, shoot one of us a baleful look, and wander away. All staff had to wear blue jackets, kind of like lab coats but shorter, so we could be easily identified.

That store doesn't exist now. The new flagship store is the Union Square superstore. The college division is a separate entity from the big stores. But one thing has not changed.

Len Riggio.

If Steve Jobs was Apple personified, Len Riggio is that for Barnes & Noble. In the 1990s, B&N was a juggernaut - seemingly unstoppable, perpetually plunking down new superstores, driving indies out of business, and generally behaving like an 800 pound gorilla.

Then came the internet. Then came Amazon. Then came the Kindle.

This triple whammy ultimately put competitor Borders out of business entirely, and weakened Barnes & Noble's position in a drastic way. (Ironically, B&N had been at the forefront of ebook sales in the early 2000s. But they didn't catch on, and once burned is twice shy.) The website just couldn't compete with Amazon, where you can buy shoes, home furnishings, and books all in one order. And the stores have faltered as well. Where they once boasted vast inventories, the web and ebook combination have seen B&N stocking games, bobble-head figurines, and stationery products in lieu of books. Indie bookstores have seen a resurgence, by adding coffee shops and wine bars and hosting events.

This week we learned that Ron Boire, the CEO of Barnes & Noble, has been let go. Len Riggio, on the verge of retirement, has decided to step back into the CEO role for the time being. This is not the first time that has happened. The position of CEO of B&N is coming to resemble that of the drummer in Spinal Tap.

Some see a long, slow death spiral in the making. I have to wonder about that. While music stores collapsed after iTunes and other services, and video stores after Netflix and streaming, books are a different proposition. Ebook sales have flattened. Print book sales are stable (once you remove the boost that adult coloring books have given them). The market seems to have found its footing after the digital disruption.

The thing that hurts publicly-traded companies the most is the expectation of increased profitability year over year. Stability is not enough.

In the course of his stewardship of B&N, Riggio has shown a willingness to spin off divisions into their own companies, acquire other companies, partner with larger companies, take his companies public, take those companies private again. When shareholders get disgruntled, Riggio readily buys them out.

So I wouldn't read a revolving door of CEOs as a harbinger of a death spiral. I wouldn't look at store closings, the failure of the Nook, and an influx of non-book inventory as indications of B&N disappearing from the landscape.

As long as Len Riggio is still with us, Barnes & Noble will be too. It began as a college store and it may well end as one. But it will persist as long as Len wills it to. Do not expect him to turn off the lights and lock the doors.

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