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Barnes & Noble is staging its biggest expansion in more than a decade

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Barnes & Noble was once the biggest of its kind. Then, the bookseller fell to the brink of extinction. Now comes a plot twist. As NPR's Alina Selyukh reports, Barnes & Noble is once again expanding.

ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: The ghost of Barnes & Noble past meets the spirit of Barnes & Noble future in a single shopping center.

I'm kind of cutting across the small parking lot to go from the old, shut-down Barnes & Noble to the brand-new, recently opened Barnes & Noble...

...Both in Pikesville, Md.

(Whispering) It's really quiet in here, which makes sense. It's a bookstore.

Not quite a library, but close. I'm here to check out the chain's makeover. Inside is lit up and bright with bookshelves arranged, not in rows of alphabetical stacks, but in little thematic rooms so people linger and browse and maybe find something they didn't know they wanted.

(Whispering) Games, puzzles, travel are all in kind of a little nook. There's, like, a whole nook of manga, another nook of books for young readers, graphic novels...

JANINE FLANIGAN: Everything you see in the store will be brand-new.

SELYUKH: Janine Flanigan heads up store planning and design at Barnes & Noble, and she's been busy. After years in survival mode, the chain is opening about 30 new stores this year, returning to places it had abandoned and even taking over former Amazon bookshops.

FLANIGAN: I would say probably 2006, 2007 was the last time we opened this many stores.

SELYUKH: Barnes & Noble slowly collapsed through the 2010s. What once was an archetypal big-box villain to independent bookstores became lunch for Amazon. Its online store lagged behind while its physical stores got overrun by gadgets and blankets and stuff in pursuit of any kind of sale.

FLANIGAN: We sort of went off the rails, I think, a little bit, and we got away from who we were as booksellers.

SELYUKH: Then in 2019, Barnes & Noble was bought by a hedge fund, which is often a scary development. But it brought along a new CEO, James Daunt, who was famous for leading what seemed like a miraculous turnaround of a British book chain called Waterstones. He pushed for Barnes & Noble stores to, quote, "weed out the rubbish." And the biggest change actually borrowed from the playbook of independent bookshops - giving the local stores much more authority to order what their readers in their area want to see.

SHANNON DEVITO: Which is a huge shift, frankly, in philosophy.

SELYUKH: Shannon DeVito is the senior director of books.

DEVITO: It's not an algorithm. It's very much a I read this, I loved it, I know this area really gravitates towards beekeeping books, so I'm going to create the best beekeeping display can.

SELYUKH: The timing of all this proved extremely opportune. Barnes & Noble took advantage of pandemic lockdowns to renovate and recalibrate. Retail bankruptcies created cheaper space for new stores, and the chain relaunched right when people were buying more books than ever.

KRISTEN MCLEAN: In 2021, the U.S. book market had its best year ever on record for print sales.

SELYUKH: Kristen McLean tracks U.S. book sales at NPD BookScan.

MCLEAN: It's like climbing a mountain. We scaled Everest in 2021, the highest point ever in the book market, and Barnes & Noble was in a perfect position to capitalize on that.

SELYUKH: Barnes & Noble does not disclose financials, but DeVito told me the company's sales grew more than 4% last year. That's a lot in Barnes & Noble land. Cue expansion and new stores like the one I visited, where several shoppers told me coming here was an alternative to waiting on an Amazon order.

KENDRA WALLACE: I do like independent stores, but there's not a lot in this area, I don't think, so...

SELYUKH: Kendra Wallace and her friend Audryana Pitts-Wright stopped by looking for the latest Ebony magazine, which this Barnes & Noble did not have. They said they did notice the nice new interior, but remain skeptical of a big-box chain trying to grow a bigger heart.

AUDRYANA PITTS-WRIGHT: It's they're trying to capture the more intimate independent bookstore feel when it's still just a Barnes & Noble. It feels a little staged (laughter).

SELYUKH: And yet you did walk away with something.

WALLACE: Yeah, I'm a reader, so I enjoy picking up books wherever I can find them. Should I have bought more books for my collection? Probably not. But it is what it is (laughter).

SELYUKH: Barnes & Noble may not have sold them on its new identity, but it did sell them some books.

Alina Selyukh, NPR News, Pikesville, Md. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alina Selyukh is a business correspondent at NPR, where she follows the path of the retail and tech industries, tracking how America's biggest companies are influencing the way we spend our time, money, and energy.