Barnes & Noble in Cheyenne is getting ready to make a big splash with its grand reopening Wednesday, but there’s already a big buzz about the national bookseller making a Cowboy State comeback.
“My wife told me she knows what it’s like to be married to a celebrity now,” store manager Colt Johnson told Cowboy State Daily on a sneak peek tour of the bookseller. “Because almost every day I can’t go to the grocery store or to a gas station or anywhere in town — a walk around the park or even a walk around the neighborhood — where someone doesn’t say, ‘Hey when’s Barnes & Noble coming back?’ or ‘Hey what’s the word on Barnes & Noble?’ (Some are) people I’ve seen before, (some are) people I don’t know, but they sure know me.”
Johnson has also seen lots of customers peeking into the store windows, craning their necks to see what they can see.
“We pulled off the window clings yesterday, and a number of passersby and excited children were looking in the windows,” Johnson said. “The community has missed us.”
They won’t have to wait much longer. The store opens Wednesday.
Cheyenne Store One Of 30 Opening This Year
The bookstore’s comeback is part of a new trend that has had Barnes & Noble opening more stores than it did even in 2008 and 2009, Johnson said.
The Cheyenne store, in fact, is one of 30 that Barnes & Noble announced it’s opening in 2023. That’s on top of the 15 stores the chain opened last year.
Barnes & Noble also told Cowboy State Daily earlier this year that it’s determining where to open stores a little bit differently. It might be willing to consider other locations in Wyoming that don’t fit big-city demographics.
This is quite the reversal of fortune for the chain store. While it was once the nation’s second largest bookseller with 726 stores at its peak in 2008, in more recent times it has struggled. It had suffered seven straight years of revenue losses and was much more likely to announce the closure of existing stores than the opening of new ones.
Activist investors bought the store out in 2019 and brought in James Daunt as CEO, who successfully turned around Waterstone over in the UK. He’s taken that playbook and started applying it to U.S. stores to turn the national bookseller around.
When Less Becomes More
Smaller stores are one of the trends Daunt has implemented for Barnes & Noble, and Cheyenne’s new store reflects that.
The new store is just 10,000 square feet, compared to the old store that was 23,000 or so.
“We’ve had a lot of people wondering, you know, your store is so small, how are you going to fit everything in?” Johnson said.
But that’s the wrong question. The question Johnson is asking is which books are the most relevant to his customers?
Making that decision lowers the number of books he needs to carry.
“The best thing about being smaller is we can just put all the right books everywhere, so when you come in the right ones are waiting for you,” he said. “We’ve got the best of the best.”
A lot more books are being placed facing outward, too, instead of being stuffed into a shelf on their sides, forcing customers to do a sideways neck-craning job to read the titles.
This new approach also ensures product will rotate much more quickly.
“We used to have so much dead product,” Johnson said. “Things that never moved for years. They became yellow and they were dusty. It’s weird because you want to have everything for everyone, but when you don’t have a person ask for a book for six years and you have a lot of that product ...”
Customers can still order those books, Johnson added. They just won’t be sitting on store shelves collecting dust any more.
The BookTok Connection
Barnes & Noble is shifting its use of social media as well, actively leveraging trendsetters on social media, like BookTok.
This is a TikTok hashtag community that took off during 2020, a year after Barnes & Noble changed hands. It was started by a group of book lovers just talking about favorite books, or what they were reading at the moment.
The community quickly went viral, and it’s stayed there. It’s now the world’s largest social media community for books, with over 29.1 billion views.
Johnson said lots of customers come in asking for books they’ve seen on BookTok. These titles are often self-published or Indie authors that may not be carried by major book distributors yet. Rather than fight the trend, Barnes & Noble has embraced it.
“Thanks to that, we’ve got great monthly picks for books,” Johnson said.
The trend has also done much to revitalize book categories, he believes, by getting more writers out to the public.
“We’ve got a ton that are self-published, print-on-demand who went from zero to 100, it’s like overnight success for some of these authors,” Johnson said. “Suddenly they’re trending and everyone’s talking about them and bookstores are getting requests and big publishers are looking to pick them up.”
Take Colleen Hoover’s books for just one of many examples.
“She started out with Amazon publishing and self-publishing I think,” he said. “But now she’s our leading, our romance sales are higher than they’ve ever been because of this author.”
More Than Just Books
Shoppers are going to find much more than just books in the Cheyenne store. There are gift wrap and journals, games and puzzles, and there’s even a section for vinyl records.
“We’ve seen such a huge spike in our vinyl sales over the last couple of years,” Johnson said. “And I was, I actually worked at Loveland, and it was about eight years ago when we first got a record player and I think three records in a box, and we thought it was a mistaken shipment.”
But it was no mistake.
“Eight years later, every store has a huge, prominent, full vinyl section and new releases are coming out every week,” he said. “Collectors are getting stuff at Barnes & Noble now.”
Johnson said that’s just part of the new concept for the store, where there’s something for everyone in the book space, even if it’s not a book.
“I just heard somebody the other day, you know, saying I thought this was a bookstore, but they’ve got so many toys and games,” Johnson said. “But I think it all works very well with each other. You know, doing a jigsaw puzzle while it’s raining, while you’ve got a book, while you have a record playing or something. I feel like everything we’ve got caters to a person in a great way. I mean there’s not very many stores that have this kind of selection.”
A New Direction
Barnes & Noble had reached the pinnacle of its sector by maximizing economy of scale, while offering a posh but collegial atmosphere with coffee shops for conversation — or, more practically, a great place for bored spouses to await their significant book fanatic other.
But that model was eclipsed by the ultimate in cozy shopping — a few clicks while seated on the sofa at home, with a coffee mug in hand.
That dynamic has required retailers to rethink strategies for brick and mortar stores. Daunt has gone a smaller and more curated experience — not to mention a much less lonely experience than a big box can offer.
This new, more intimate customer experience is absolutely going to include community activities, Johnson said.
“We’re going to be a host store for the National Novel Writing Month,” he said. “I think we’ll have a designated table where people can come in and just write.”
There’s also going to be story times all month with activities for children. Guest readers will stop by each month, and activities are planned for the weekends. There may even be things like book drives for the libraries of small communities — and whatever else customers can dream up to make the store a vibrant place.
“If people have ideas with our team, with our community, of ways we can partner more, then we’d like to do that,” he said.
Doing That Opposite Thing
Customers to the Cheyenne store may notice a bit more informality than was the case in the past.
Daunt has allowed store employees to wear jeans on the floor, a custom that as once unheard of in a Barnes & Noble store.
It’s more than just cosmetics. It’s underscoring an indie vibe for the stores, which are all being given much more autonomy to decide their own fates.
“Each store is independent now,” Johnson said. “We’re doing our own thing now. We’re autonomous.”
Someone in New York will no longer make all the decisions about what to promote where in stores across the country.
Instead, store managers like Johnson will leverage their knowledge of the community to curate and promote what’s interesting to their local customers.
“Cheyenne people when they come in, we’ve really set up strong stuff for them,” Johnson said. “We’ve got a lot of great new releases, and then, we’re a history town. We’re a military town with the Air Force base and everything, so this is just kind of like our customer base, which is wonderful.”