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Barnes & Noble has been tagged as either the savior or the destroyer of the book industry in its 100-year history. Lately, it’s the bookstore chain itself that needs saving.

Enter James Daunt, a lifelong bookseller who built his own mini-chain of bookstores and got the credit for turning around Waterstones, the biggest bookseller in Britain. Elliott Management, the hedge fund that took B&N private last year, brought in Daunt to resuscitate Waterstones’ much larger American cousin. Wall Street Journal reporter Jeffrey Trachtenberg, who has been covering the ups and down of B&N for decades, profiled Daunt this weekend and offers a detailed look at the new CEO’s strategy.

Although Daunt (and Trachtenberg) give a few nods to Amazon in the piece, you won’t find any mention of In fact, there’s barely a mention of Daunt’s strategy for online sales in the entire 2,000 word article:

Mr. Daunt is working to improve Barnes & Noble’s online store, but his focus is mainly on physical stores. “It’s in the stores where you win the loyalty from your customers,” he said. “If you get your stores right, your online sales will follow. If your stores are crap, your online will be as well.

As the pandemic ravages traditional retail outlets and fuels further growth of online shopping, it’s a curious decision to ignore online selling. The rise of Instagram book influencers and, the new fast-growing online site supporting independent bookstores, are similarly not discussed. And there is absolutely nothing about B&N’s ebook platform, the Nook, despite a surge of ebook reading this year for the first time in ages.

In fact, Daunt’s whole strategy, which relies on localizing the content of chain stores and making books easier to browse, seems right out of the 1990s. It doesn’t seem to take much advantage of B&N’s massive scale in just copying what makes small indie bookstores good. Daunt’s effort could stabilize things for a bit. But it hardly seems like a plan to carry Barnes & Noble through another 100 years.

Aaron Pressman

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