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New Barnes & Noble CEO Started His Career As An Independent Bookseller


Nora Ephron would be rolling over in her grave. Back in 1998, Ephron made "You've Got Mail." The film tapped into the cultural zeitgeist with its story of a burgeoning email romance between two characters - one the owner of a big, bad bookstore chain, the other the beloved children's bookseller he puts out of business. So Ephron might be shocked to learn who has been charged with reviving the fortunes of Barnes & Noble, the largest bookstore chain in the U.S. NPR's Lynn Neary went to meet him.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Thank you for calling Barnes & Noble Union Square. How may I help you?

LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: James Daunt, the new CEO of Barnes & Noble, scans the floor of the Union Square store in New York City with a keen eye.

JAMES DAUNT: The Barnes & Noble that we have is really quite a precious thing. What we just need to do is leverage all its strengths.

NEARY: Little escapes Daunt's attention. If a pile of books looks untidy, he straightens it. If some merchandise has fallen on the floor, he picks it up. And if a display just doesn't seem right, he takes notice. On one shelf, he spots an impressive-looking Bible.

DAUNT: Next to which is a piece of plastic tat - very pink, and it's a little purse-y (ph) thing - is sitting next to a really serious, heavyweight book. How does that happen? I mean, I just do not know how that happened.

NEARY: Daunt began his career with one store in the U.K. It grew into a small chain of six stores called Daunt Books. Now, though he may be the head of this country's biggest bookstore chain, there is still no doubt where his heart lies.

DAUNT: I don't think of myself remotely as being a chain bookseller. I'm an independent bookseller who just happens to be running a chain at the moment.

NEARY: A chain of more than 600 stores on main streets and malls throughout the United States. And Daunt does not just happen to be running Barnes & Noble. He got the job as CEO because he succeeded in rescuing the U.K.'s largest bookstore chain, Waterstones, from bankruptcy. The hope is he can rejuvenate Barnes & Noble using the same strategy that worked for Waterstones. That is making chain stores more like indies.

DAUNT: The soul of the store needs to reflect the community in which it is. And by soul, I mean first and foremost, how the booksellers and the staff within the store deport themselves and interact with their customers but also which books they choose, how they choose to display them, how they create the store. And you can - and I know from the Waterstones experience - you can create different varieties.

NEARY: Six hundred twenty-seven different varieties, to be exact. That's how many Barnes & Noble stores there are throughout the country. And until now, whether in New York or Alabama, the display plan for all of them was dictated by headquarters. Local booksellers had little or no say in what books to stock and where to put them. And publishers pay to have certain books displayed prominently at the front of a store. Daunt wants the staff of every Barnes & Noble to make decisions based on their knowledge of what customers want.

DAUNT: Rather than the identikit (ph) model of, you know, give me 50,000 bucks, and I'll go and put a pile of the latest book - every single story in the same position - we say, right, well, I'd still like the 50,000 bucks please because that's what keeps the lights on, but we will put that in the shops in which it will sell best. And we will put something else in its place in those stores where it really won't sell at all.

NEARY: Publishers have welcomed the news that Daunt is taking over as CEO. They believe a thriving bookstore chain is good for business, so they want Daunt to succeed. And he's convinced that readers can be lured away from Amazon by the right kind of brick-and-mortar shop.

DAUNT: Margaret Atwood is a better book when you buy it in a bookstore if, and only if, that bookstore is excellent, whether service is wonderful, whether people are friendly, whether energy is apparent. But also, physically, it looks nice when the whole assembly is as much an excitement of your senses as it is of your intellect. That's why it all matters.


EMILY BANK: Next in line, please. Hello.

NEARY: On the main floor of the Union Square store, longtime employee Emily Bank says they have already changed the floor plan and handpicked many of the books that are displayed here.

BANK: It's a lot more of a cabinet of curiosities - is one way I would think of it or kind of has that, like, someone's personal library feel. I know, like, we already have staff recommendations back on this floor - which makes me so happy - right along that wall near the bestsellers. That bestsellers and staff choices are next to each other - that's saying something about what you think of the bookseller.

NEARY: Back in the U.K., James Daunt faced criticism from employees who felt underpaid. He maintains that while short-term employees will make a basic rate for retail, those who want to make bookselling a career will be paid better. Amy Deng, who has worked at the Union Square store for more than 10 years, says until now, she didn't really think of her job as a career.

AMY DENG: More so now, though, because there's more flexibility. There's more of my voice in it. So it feels less like a cog and more like an integral piece that is actually moving this company forward.

NEARY: Before leaving the Union Square store, James Daunt takes a last look around and seems satisfied by what he sees.

DAUNT: Nice queue at the cash registers. Yeah, it's looking pretty healthy, isn't it?

NEARY: Now onto the 626 other stores in the chain.

Lynn Neary, NPR News, New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF PARCELS' "COMEDOWN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lynn Neary is an NPR arts correspondent covering books and publishing.