Independent bookstores once considered Barnes & Noble the enemy, but its CEO loves small bookstores so much, he owns 9 of his own

Independent bookstores once considered Barnes & Noble the enemy, but its CEO loves small bookstores so much, he owns 9 of his own
The interior of Daunt Books in Marylebone, London.Alex Segre/UCG/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
  • Barnes & Noble's CEO owns nine independent bookstores scattered throughout London.
  • But back in the 1990s, the book retailer was considered the enemy of small bookstores everywhere.

In the 1998 film "You've Got Mail," independent bookstore owner Kathleen Kelly, played by Meg Ryan, describes Fox Books, a clear stand-in for Barnes & Noble, as "theme-park, multi-level, homogenize-the-world Mochaccinoland."

The movie pitted shops like Kelly's, a cozy neighborhood bookstore handed down from her mother, against national chains of book superstores, which were thought to be stealing customers from independent shops and putting those stores out of business. Chains like Barnes & Noble were the enemy of anyone who truly loved books, according to the film.

Fast-forward more than two decades, and Barnes & Noble has had a tumultuous rise and fall of its own, culminating in new ownership and a new CEO — who happens to be a small-bookstore owner himself.

"I believe that independent bookstores can thrive. I've backed that with my own money because I own nine of them," James Daunt, Barnes & Noble's CEO since 2019, said in an interview published by the National Retail Federation.

Daunt was referring to Daunt Books, a small chain of bookstores scattered throughout London and the surrounding region. Daunt's first shop, located in London's Marylebone district, opened in 1990 and is known for its airy, sky-lit space and books arranged by country, not author or title.


Daunt Books is still owned by Daunt today, despite his ascent through the ranks of corporate bookselling. He was named managing director of UK-based book retailer Waterstones in 2011 and helped turn the struggling company around. Waterstones was acquired by hedge fund Elliott Management in 2018, the same firm that bought Barnes & Noble the following year for $638 million.

Daunt now oversees roughly 600 Barnes & Noble stores across the US, as well as 100 Paper Source stores and nearly 300 Waterstones shops in the UK and Europe, according to Barnes & Noble.

Daunt acknowledged to the NRF that some small booksellers did go out of business during Barnes & Noble's late '90s heyday — in fact, the American Booksellers Association, a group that represents independent bookstores, filed a lawsuit against Barnes & Noble alleging that retailer was abusing its position of market dominance. But around that same time, Amazon had emerged as a major threat to both Barnes & Noble and small bookstores alike, eventually shifting the conversation from brick-and-mortar turf wars to online book sales and e-readers.

And even though Barnes & Noble is now in the midst of a major turnaround effort, Daunt doesn't foresee a revival of a "You've Got Mail"-style feud.

"The best bookstore in New York City is McNally Jackson Books," he told the NRF, "and they have nothing to fear from Barnes & Noble."