December 1, 2023

The inexperienced carpet is gone. Darkish wooden cabinets are now not in favor.

At many Barnes & Noble shops, the green-striped wallpaper and hunter-green partitions have been scraped away and painted over in sandy shades of white and pink because the nation’s greatest brick-and-mortar bookseller pursues, in matches and begins, a back-to-basics, books-first technique.

Different shops may have a special look. The design of a brand new location in Brooklyn reveals the polished concrete flooring from its previous life as a Barneys New York. A Barnes & Noble not too long ago opened in California with cerulean partitions, and an experiment in robin’s egg blue is within the works for some East Coast areas.

“Any design company would have a coronary heart assault if they may see what we’re doing,” James Daunt, the Barnes & Noble chief government, mentioned. “We don’t have any architect doing our design at any stage. There’s no inside designer.”

“And definitely the identification individuals would have a whole disaster,” Mr. Daunt continued, referring to branding consultants. “It’s breaking all the principles.”

Barnes & Noble has launched the brand new have a look at a number of dozen of its practically 600 areas, together with the Higher West Aspect of Manhattan and the Grove shopping center in Los Angeles, and on the 20 new shops which have opened in 2023.

The consequence has been an idiosyncratic strategy to mass retail. Mr. Daunt, who describes himself as “an impartial bookseller in background and ethos,” is pushing the chain to behave extra just like the indie shops it was as soon as infamous for displacing — and to embrace lighter, brighter interiors with modular cabinets designed for max flexibility.

Mr. Daunt proved his book-selling bona fides because the founding father of Daunt Books in London and, extra not too long ago, as the manager who rescued Waterstones, Britain’s largest bookstore chain. The hedge fund Elliott Advisors took a majority stake in Waterstones in 2018; the subsequent 12 months it purchased Barnes & Noble for $683 million and put in Mr. Daunt, a Cambridge-educated Brit, as its chief. (He’s nonetheless the managing director of Waterstones; the 2 chains function individually.)

Since he launched into the Barnes & Noble redesign in 2020, Mr. Daunt has demonstrated that consistency doesn’t rank very excessive on his precedence listing. New York Metropolis has 9 Barnes & Noble shops that includes 4 completely different logos above the entrance doorways. Two shops are new; one has been totally renovated; and the others have had some updates however are largely frozen in time, the still-functioning stays of bygone retail methods in an organization — and business — that has undergone an upheaval.

Janine Flanigan, Barnes & Noble’s cheerfully fast-talking director of retailer planning, famous that the shop beneath its headquarters in Union Sq. in Manhattan has remained largely unchanged because it opened in 1998. In a mode harking back to Ivy League libraries, the inside has forest-green carpeting and heavy wooden cabinets lined with ladders. “Union Sq. continues to be what our conventional bookstores have been 20 or 30 years in the past,” she mentioned, referring to the corporate’s heyday, a time earlier than Amazon dominated guide promoting.

The Union Sq. retailer will not be scheduled for renovation as a result of, as Mr. Daunt put it, “it does completely properly.” Not solely that, however change can be pricey: The cabinets are constructed into the partitions.

The revamped Higher West Aspect location is one other story. Main a tour on a current morning, Ms. Flanigan demonstrated how the brand new cabinets clip right into a modular system, permitting managers to rearrange their shows in plenty of alternative ways. The cabinets even have variable depths in order that books of any dimension can line up neatly.

“Hangover simply doesn’t look good,” Ms. Flanigan mentioned, gesturing towards an oversize guide that jutted past a shelf’s periphery. “It’s not snug.”

Some fixtures might be snapped out of the wall and mixed into free-standing retailer shows; others have lips for vinyl data, hooks for tote baggage and rods for sheets of wrapping paper that may be at residence at an Anthropologie retailer. (Barnes & Noble not too long ago acquired the greeting-card retailer Paper Supply, whose workers helped replace the look of the reward part.)

The modular shelving system, which has similarities to the one at Waterstones, owes a debt to Feltrinelli, an Italian bookstore chain designed by the late architect Miguel Sal, whom Mr. Daunt thought-about a pal. “We’d get on airplanes and go go to shops,” he mentioned. The journeys — to the Taiwanese guide retailer Eslite and plenty of Japanese guide and stationery shops — influenced his strategy to structure and lighting, he added.

The outdated Barnes & Noble had what Mr. Daunt referred to as “fairly a masculine aesthetic,” a mode influenced by the “small little band that occurred to personal the corporate.”

“However I feel we’re a lot better off with one thing that’s brilliant, that welcomes the world,” he mentioned.

The Higher West Aspect renovation value $4 million and is on monitor to pay for itself in a few years, in accordance with Mr. Daunt. “I’d be stunned if we don’t find yourself doubling its gross sales,” he mentioned. (Barnes & Noble, previously a public firm, doesn’t disclose its financials; it has been privately held since Elliott Advisors acquired it.) Subsequent month the chain plans to open its largest new-format retailer: a 35,000-square-foot location in Paramus, N.J.

On the time of the possession change, Barnes & Noble was in a state of tumult. To fend off Amazon, it had closed greater than 150 shops amid a collection of management modifications. It additionally tried out just a few Hail Mary retail methods, all of which have been witnessed by Ms. Flanigan, who has labored for the corporate since 1985, beginning as a cashier when she was in highschool.

In its darkest hours, the shops started to resemble the low cost aisle at Spencer’s. A structure often called “the racetrack prototype” — which Ms. Flanigan recognized as “my least favourite design” — borrowed from big-box shops like Goal, with money registers by the door and impulse-purchase temptations across the perimeter. Solely after wading via a sea of tchotchkes would clients encounter books.

The racetrack’s designers didn’t perceive books, in Ms. Flanigan’s estimation. “You have to love books, and it’s worthwhile to know the way our clients store for books,” she mentioned.

The brand new look goals to encourage shopping, which Mr. Daunt believes improves buyer satisfaction. “In the event you simply need to purchase a guide, the blokes in Seattle will promote you a guide,” Mr. Daunt mentioned. “The enjoyment and the social expertise of that engagement with books in a bookstore? That’s our sport.”

The revamped areas have separate alcoves for a wide range of topics and customers. Providing an instance of two imaginary Barnes & Noble clients, Mr. Daunt described a historical past buff who’s trying to decide up Simon Schama’s “Residents” and a chatty teenager nerding out on speculative Y.A. fiction. The revised structure permits them to buy collectively with out being on prime of one another, he mentioned.

The author Glynnis MacNicol, who lives on the Higher West Aspect, described herself as “surprisingly thrilled” by the refreshed look of the neighborhood retailer. “This feels very books,” she mentioned, noting that, in recent times, her curiosity in Barnes & Noble had not often gone past “Are the bogs working?”

Bookstores, in Mr. Daunt’s view, are essentially completely different from different retail companies, partly due to the vary and variability of the merchandise. Underneath his management, native managers are given a free hand, which means that the Higher West Aspect retailer might supply a buying expertise fairly completely different from the one in Spanish Fort, Ala.

“The curious trick has been that in case you really let the native book-selling groups do what they suppose is finest, you instantly get a lot better bookstores,” Mr. Daunt mentioned. Then he shortly added a caveat: “A couple of quarter of them turn out to be dramatically higher, and 1 / 4 turn out to be dramatically worse — however it’s a lot simpler to deal with that quarter and enhance them.”

Mr. Daunt believes in native experimentation to such an excessive diploma that final 12 months he allowed a Barnes & Noble in Oviedo, Fla., to vary its identify. The Oviedo Mall is now the positioning of the nation’s one and solely B. Dalton Bookseller retailer, named after a sequence that Barnes & Noble acquired in 1987 and liquidated in 2010. In an illustration of the corporate’s dedication to inconsistency, the situation now has a blue and pink B. Dalton Bookseller signal above the doorway — and Barnes & Noble-branded supplies inside.

“You flip what had been a really uniform however dying enterprise into one thing that’s far more unpredictable and dynamic,” Mr. Daunt mentioned, “and it begins to work.”

That’s the half that may have brand-identity consultants clutching their pearls. Reviewing pictures of Barnes & Noble’s hodgepodge of logos, the model designer Sagi Haviv of Chermayeff & Geismar & Haviv expressed each a passion for the corporate and a few dismay with its inconsistent strategy.

“What they did is a disas—” he mentioned, his voice trailing off instantly. After a pause, he concluded, “It leaves loads to be desired.”

Joanne Chan, the chief government of the branding company Turner Duckworth, which in 1998 designed the emblem that Amazon makes use of to at the present time, was equally baffled. However when informed of Mr. Daunt’s embrace of native idiosyncrasies, her curiosity was piqued.

The eyeglasses firm Warby Parker customizes shops with regionally impressed murals, she famous, including that hospitality chains like Ace Lodge include appreciable variations inside a single model identification. For Barnes & Noble to tug off that strategy, she mentioned, “they should stroll the stroll,” ideally by encouraging shops to interact with their communities.

One among Mr. Daunt’s first acts as chief government was to strip all shops of the footfall counters that many mass retailers use to tally the variety of clients and calculate gross sales charges. That transfer has minimize prices (monitoring clients is pricey) and “liberated the bookstore managers, and everyone else, so they may simply consider being good,” he mentioned.

The change goes alongside along with his technique of embracing the mind-set of his typical worker. “Booksellers are about as uncommercial a breed of individuals because it’s potential to return throughout,” Mr. Daunt mentioned. “The irony is that the much less involved we’re with the business, the higher it really works commercially.”

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