By Renée Jean, Business and Tourism Reporter
Wyoming will not only get its Barnes & Noble store back in Cheyenne, the company may consider more bookstores in the Cowboy State.
It’s all part of a national trend that has Barnes & Noble announcing the return of the Cheyenne community’s bookstore in the summer of 2023.
It will be a smaller store, located in what used to be National Grocer’s location in Frontier Plaza, just a mile away from its previous location.
For those wondering why the store would move at all, particularly such a short distance from what already seemed an ideal location, Cowboy State Daily was told by company Director of Store Planning and Design Janine Flanigan that the store’s lease was up and the owner didn’t want to renew.
That caused a search for a new home that has taken almost a year and had many wondering if the store would return at all.
But the Cheyenne store is one of 30 that Barnes & Noble plans to open in 2023, Flanigan said.
Last year the chain opened 15 new stores.
That Barnes & Noble can open so many stores in 2023 is quite a reversal of fortune for the company.
Once the nation’s second largest bookseller with 726 stores at its peak in 2008, in more recent times it had reported seven straight years of revenue losses before new CEO James Daunt came on board.
Barnes & Noble had reached the top by maximizing economies of scale and simplifying in-store shopping while offering a somewhat collegial atmosphere with coffee shops for conversation — or, more often perhaps, the best spot for a bored spouse to await a book-shopping counterpart.
There were plenty of places to sit and read while deciding which book to take home.
That gave the bookstore a posh, but inviting feel.
It was a highly successful model at the time. Barnes & Noble drove out so many smaller mom-and-pop shops so quickly, it led some to characterize it as a bookstore “bully.”
But it was nothing compared to the more recent success of Amazon, which offers the simplest shopping experience of all. One click from the sofa, with a coffee mug in hand.
No shopping trip — or bored spouse — needed.
Before Barnes & Noble
Rod Miller remembers the days before either Barnes & Noble or Amazon. He was an independent bookseller in Cheyenne with a store called Joe Pages.
“I did all this market research,” he told Cowboy State Daily. “And, at the time, there were only two chain bookstores in the United States. It was Hastings and Barnes & Noble.”
Barnes & Noble was aggressively growing at the time, but didn’t seem interested in locating in cities with less than 500,000 in population.
“I thought it would be safe to open a bookstore in Cheyenne,” said Miller, who’s also a Cowboy State Daily columnist. “We were like 45,000.”
But a year later, Barnes & Noble did a stock spilt and suddenly began penetrating markets under 50,000.
“It took them like a year, two years, to build a store, get it up and going,” Miller recalled. “After they opened, I had about a year when I was slowly watching my business decline, decline, decline.”
Barnes & Noble was putting store after store in other communities out of business. Miller decided to cut his losses and closed up shop.
“You know, when I opened my store, I might have put some little guy and a shopping cart out there selling books out of business,” he said. “But that’s the nature of the game.”
New Game in Town
Bigger, though, is not always better, something the COVID-19 pandemic has seemed to underscore.
Bigger can mean lonely customers lost in a space that feels large and overwhelming, where store help is nowhere to be seen.
In a world where no one has to leave the warm bubble of home to order what they want or need online, many brick-and-mortar store owners are realizing it takes something of a social experience to lure customers from the sofa.
That’s a trend Barnes & Noble’s new CEO James Daunt seems to get.
Daunt has closed larger stores in some communities, reopening them in smaller, potentially more intimate locations.
Cheyenne’s new space, for example, will be 10,000 square feet, Flanigan said. That’s significantly smaller than the prior store.
The new store designs are going to use cheerful, fun colors, Flanigan added. But the real key to the game plan will be personalization.
“Our booksellers now choose the assortment locally, based on their local market,” she said. “They’re able to curate the store for their customer, where in year’s past it was all corporate-driven, and all of the initiatives were pushed down from the corporate office.”
Barnes & Noble Wyomingized
The personalization won’t stop with books, however.
Local store owners are empowered to work with local artists and local authors as well to create a unique character for their stores.
“We’re bringing back story time, we’re bringing back the author signings,” Flanigan said. “We will do different kinds of events in the stores.
“And, we will absolutely, now, with hopefully some of the COVID issues behind us, be looking at different events and opportunities in the stores.”
This will include encouraging book clubs in the stores, along with local authors and authors in general, Flanigan said.
Flanigan believes this will create an edge over Amazon.
“You really have to know what you want when you’re ordering from Amazon Prime,” she said. “But the experience of being in a bookstore, being able to touch and feel, the discovery of titles. I think that’s where there’s a significant difference.
“We’re curating to the area. We’re putting books in front of our customers that we know they want. We’re personally seeing and recommending titles to the customer walking in.”
Daunt Gameplay 2.0
If Barnes & Nobles game plan sounds polished and pat, that’s because it is.
Daunt has already used this playbook before, to turn around the U.K’s main street bookseller, Waterstone. It was on the brink of bankruptcy in 2011, but by 2016, Daunt had turned things around.
Waterstone is making profits again, using a very similar strategy to the one outlined for Barnes & Noble.
Already, it appears to be working. Barnes & Noble is operating just 125 fewer stores than its peak in 2008. And it is devoting an entire real estate team to developing new locations.
Those locations are no longer based solely on demographics. Numbers play a role, of course, there needs to be enough traffic. But, Flanigan said, the store is actively seeking recommendations from customers for where they’d like to see stores.
“We’re really looking across the board at all kinds of opportunities,” she said.