COVID has sparked a book craze — and Barnes & Noble is cashing in

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Thanks to the pandemic, a stunning variety of customers are as soon as once more devouring books — in print — and Barnes & Noble is cashing in. 

The 125-year-old chain, taken non-public two years in the past for $683 million by billionaire Paul Singer’s hedge fund Elliott Management, has reported double-digit gross sales development in books this year to this point in comparison with 2019, earlier than the coronavirus outbreak.

Even extra stunning to skeptics who had watched the chain wither in the face of Amazon’s rise, the retailer says youngsters and tweens are serving to to gas the surge. Sales of Manga, or graphic novels, at Barnes & Noble are up by as a lot as 500 p.c at some shops the place younger adults are crowding in the aisles on Friday and Saturday nights.

Industrywide, US gross sales of books are up 12 p.c to this point this year by means of August in comparison with the identical interval a year in the past —  and up 20 p.c from 2019 over the identical time interval, in accordance NPD Group, a market analysis company.

CEO James Daunt says B&N gross sales have risen 6 p.c since 2019.
Jon Enoch Photography

“Double-digit growth in books has not happened since Amazon came along,” Barnes & Noble Chief Executive James Daunt instructed The Post in an interview. 

Those sorts of numbers are encouraging for Elliott, a fund identified for taking massive positions in public firms and agitating for change: In this case, it purchased B&N complete as a fixer-upper. A supply acquainted with the matter says Elliott is about midway by means of its plan that may ultimately spin the bookseller again onto the general public markets — or promote it to a different non-public purchaser.

Daunt, who ran Elliott’s UK-based Waterstones book chain earlier than he was tapped to run B&N, says he’s already seeing the fruits of his adjustments, together with an inside overhaul of the chain’s 600-plus shops and a new administration philosophy that empowers native bosses to make extra selections about which books they’ll stock.

Barnes & Noble is additionally shifting away from its signature inexperienced coloration scheme, which in older shops dominates the carpeting, wallpaper and even signage on the book cabinets. Revamped shops are brighter with plentiful overhead lighting and extra open ground house.

Barnes & Noble’s whole gross sales are up round 6 p.c from 2019, Daunt mentioned, and that’s with fewer shops — 605 in comparison with 628 in 2019. He declined to present a precise greenback quantity for income or revenue.

Elliott portfolio supervisor Paul Best, who is the agency’s European head of personal fairness, mentioned Barnes & Noble is now “more profitable” than it was.

“It was going through a prolonged period of decline in both revenues and profits — for a decade at least,” he instructed The Post. “Two years in, the team has halted the decline and now has a base from which to grow revenues and profit.”

Round show tables are a part of B&N’s new technique to encourage searching.
Barnes & Noble

B&N’s Daunt plans to open as many as 12 new shops in February and March alone — after having opened eight and additionally closing some shops in 2020 and 2021. Some of the brand new shops may even be concerning the quarter of the dimensions of the standard 25,000 sq. foot location, Daunt mentioned, including the chain can now drive the identical quantity out of a 8,000 sq. foot retailer as a 25,000 sq. foot retailer.

“We are ready to open a lot of new stores,” he mentioned.

A supply acquainted with the matter says Elliott has been captivated with funding the bookseller’s development and that the business is worthwhile. It had gone by means of a “long period” of decline in each revenues and income, the supply mentioned, however in the final two years underneath Elliott, the declines have been halted.

Most of the expansion is coming from rising foot visitors in the shops — not on-line gross sales, Daunt mentioned. 

“I’m sure Amazon is doing very well, and the independent booksellers, also,” Daunt mentioned. “The pie is very much larger.” 

Publishers are noticing B&N’s turnaround, too.

Billionaire Paul Singer’s stewardship of the bookstore chain has ushered in a beautiful gross sales comeback.
Bloomberg by way of Getty Images

“We are seeing the positive effects of better store layouts, recommendations, refreshed selections, and livelier merchandising and display, and operational improvements, all of which are leading to increasing sales,” Hachette Book Group CEO Michael Pietsch mentioned in an electronic mail.

Whether book gross sales stay robust after the pandemic is over is the large question.

“Everyone is wondering whether this is a permanent shift or how long it will stick, but right now almost every category is up,” book publishing advisor Jane Friedman instructed The Post.

At B&N, massive rectangular tables that held stacks of books — typically on deep low cost — have been swapped out for small spherical ones that Daunt says are extra conducive to searching — and shopping for. (And the low cost books have been moved to the again of the shop, liberating up precious actual property up entrance.)

Once cluttered with non-book-related objects –reminiscent of batteries, Vera Bradley purses and heat bottles of Fiji water — the shops at the moment are configured by managers who’re anticipated to mirror the tastes of their native communities.

At the White Plains retailer in Westchester, that meant shifting Spanish-language books to the entrance of the store from a nook in the again to enchantment to the group’s massive bilingual group, retailer supervisor Sean Carroll instructed The Post.

At the Cortlandt Manor retailer, managers determined to maneuver leisure biographies — which have been outselling different biographies. 

Despite the rise in in-store book purchases at Barnes & Noble, enhancing income from its cafes stays a problem.
Barnes & Noble

“If you’re excited about the new Julie Andrews book, you are not looking for something on presidents, so we pulled all our entertainment books from the other biographies and put them in the movie section,” retailer supervisor Allison Demato mentioned.

Those forms of adjustments would have been forbidden underneath the outdated B&N method whereby edicts as granular as what books might be displayed and the place they have been to be displayed, have been handed down from headquarters. But it’s the kind of possession that Daunt says he encourages.

To be certain, Barnes & Noble has loads of hurdles forward, not least of which is the cratering of its cafe business and newsstand gross sales.

Magazine gross sales are off “slightly” from 2019, Daunt mentioned, whereas the cafes have struggled to retain each workers and clients because the Delta variant makes sitting for hours in a restaurant much less interesting. Music additionally is a declining section, in line with a individual acquainted with the matter.

“There is work still to do and there are parts of the stores that are not where they need to be,” the individual mentioned.