Barnes & Noble’s chief executive James Daunt slammed the 600-odd stores he now runs in the US as “crucifyingly boring” and warned that “the one thing you cannot be in this age of Amazon is boring”. He made the comments in a powerful address at the Bookseller’s FutureBook conference in London earlier this month.
His talk was full of fascinating remarks as he laid out his case for remaking the US chain. He repeated the mantra he has been using ever since he entered bookselling in 1990 when the opened Daunt Books for Travellers in London – that is: “If you make the stores look good, if you fill them with great books and you have good staff, then they will be a more pleasant way of buying books than having them come through your letter box.”
He believes you have to “curate bookshops in an unflinching manner, going though the sections in a detailed way, looking at the juxtaposition of books and asking what books do I need to stock in order to make others sell”.
Data is useful he said, but it has to be backed up by bookseller intelligence and emotion. “You have to have booksellers who are vocationally inspired and equip them with the skills to choose their own books and not be a slave to data.”
Daunt is now one of the most important booksellers in the world, having 629 Barnes & Nobles, 293 Waterstones (including stores in Amsterdam and Ireland) and nine Daunts (run independently) under his leadership.
He says the vast size of the US market and the huge resources on that side of the Atlantic have paradoxically proved a problem. “The very fact of the opulence with which [Barnes & Noble] has been endowed has undermined its ability to survive as a bookseller. It has brought in people with no empathy for the book trade, completely erased the company’s character and alienated customers.”
But he ended his talk with a positive message. “We – Waterstones, Barnes & Noble, independents – have to stand on our feet and use our brains, our wit and our personality to create points of interest on the high street…” – and if that happens, coupled with an online offer that has personality too, then bricks and mortar can be anything but boring and can more than meet the challenge of Amazon.