KIRKLAND — The opening of a new bookstore is always an act of optimism: a determined belief that there continue to be many people who prefer to pick out books from an actual shelf or table, and buy them while exchanging pleasantries or book recommendations with an actual person. But when the new bookstore is a Barnes & Noble, a national chain that has shuttered three stores in the Seattle area in recent years, it’s not just optimism, but a vast reset, one that takes its principles from small, independent bookstores.
Barnes & Noble, whose newest branch formally opened Wednesday at The Village at Totem Lake in Kirkland, is no indie; it’s owned, since 2019, by the same British private equity firm that owns the U.K. bookstore chain Waterstones. But its current CEO, James Daunt, got his start running his own bookshop (he still owns Daunt Books in London). Since taking the reins at Barnes & Noble nearly two years ago, his goal has been to transform the company by giving local staff more control over the stores. It’s been a successful strategy for the Waterstones chain, over which Daunt also presides, and he’s encouraged by its early results in the U.S. stores.
“What I think we should be able to do at Barnes & Noble is use the resources and capacities of a large bookstore, but effectively harness them within a culture which is much more independently minded,” he said in a telephone interview from New York this week. This means, he explained, that bookstore managers take their cue from their customers in choosing what to stock, and have much more leeway in how to display it.
Giving this freedom to the stores — a process that began last year, when many stores that were closed during the pandemic used the time to reorganize the stock — has been good for business, Daunt said. During his tenure, he said that the Barnes & Noble send-back rate to publishers — the bookstore business is structured on returning books that don’t sell — has gone from about 25% to 10-12% percent.
“We’ll keep on driving it down,” he said. “Waterstones has been about 3%. Which I think is about the level a bookstore should be.”
And why open again in the Seattle area, where the West Seattle, Issaquah and downtown Barnes & Noble stores so recently shut down?
“It’s a very good area for communities that read and are engaged and well-educated — all the things that one would expect to support a successful bookstore,” he said. The previous closures were largely due to real estate issues — leases, redevelopment — “and of course the stores were getting quite old,” he said. “If you’re going to keep yourself as a vibrant retailer, you have to open (new stores) because you’re always going to be closing, frankly.”
It’s been a rocky few decades for Barnes & Noble, whose business model has struggled since the arrival of Amazon in the 1990s. Barnes & Noble currently has 607 stores (including the Kirkland one), with three more planned to open this summer. That’s down from its peak of 1,046 stores in 1996 (though most of those stores were of a “small footprint” format that have since been phased out).
At the shiny new Totem Lake store, located between a bustling Whole Foods and an equally busy Trader Joe’s, manager Dave Rossiter, a 17-year Barnes & Noble employee who previously managed the Issaquah store, led a walk-through of the layout early this week. Its 8,200 square feet hold not straight-line rows of shelves, but room-like nooks for each genre. Within those nooks are thousands of books, a small selection of DVDs, puzzles and gift items, and a cafe.
Rossiter said the store currently employs about 22 people, most of them part-time. While he looked for retail experience in hiring, he said his first interview question was always some variant of “tell me why you are passionate about reading.” You can see that passion in the store: dozens of handwritten cards dot the shelves, with enthusiastic recommendations from booksellers. (One charmingly — and accurately — refers to an edition of William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” as “the original emo.”) It’s a sight that’s typical at an indie bookstore, but wouldn’t have been seen at an old-style Barnes & Noble — part of Daunt’s goal to create “bookstores with a genuine local personality.”
While Daunt acknowledged that many of these staff positions would be at or close to minimum wage, he said the company is in the process of changing its employment structure for its stores. Formerly, a Barnes & Noble store would have a number of minimum-wage workers, then a large step up in pay for the few who became managers or assistant managers. The new structure adds rungs on the ladder — senior bookseller, lead bookseller, expert bookseller — with higher pay at each step, to allow “young people to embark on and sustain careers in bookselling,” he said. This would mean, in all likelihood, fewer employees per store, but more of them full-time and better-paid.
The reverberations of a new, sizable chain bookstore are felt not only by potential customers, but by local booksellers, particularly the few currently on the Eastside. Daunt says he makes a point of not opening new Barnes & Noble stores in neighborhoods already served by independent stores — “I celebrate the opening of independents as much as I do our stores, and we would never go into direct competition,” he said. But while no local indies are in the immediate vicinity of the Totem Lake location, two are a short distance away: BookTree in Kirkland and Brick & Mortar Books in Redmond, about 4 and 5 miles away, respectively.
”I am hoping of course that the impact on BookTree’s sales will be minimal but there’s really no way of knowing,” owner Chris Jarmick said. “I am a little worried that we might not see as many first-time customers looking for a bookstore, and that could impact how many new loyal customers we add to our BookTree family. ... It’s important people are aware how fragile a small business truly is and will continue to support BookTree.”
Dan Ullom, an owner of Brick & Mortar, expressed optimism. “Another bookstore opening in the region is a positive, a rising tide that elevates all ships,” he said. “Our hope is that their opening inspires more people to become readers and inspires current readers to read more.”