Few analysts expected brick-and-mortar bookstores to survive, much less thrive, in the 2020s. If you were placing bets a few years ago, you’d think digital would be the way to go: Facebook, Netflix, Crypto, or Tesla.
But as Ted Gioia points out, digital media is struggling while Barnes & Noble, a 136-year-old book retailer, has begun to grow again. Success has come through “embracing the most antiquated technology of them all: the printed book.” Not only is Barnes & Noble profitable and growing, but they’re also opening new stores, including in places where Amazon tried (and failed) physical bookstores.
What’s surprising about this news is the state of the company just a few years ago. Gioia writes,
“Even after its leading bricks-and-mortar competitor Borders shut down in 2011, B&N still couldn’t find a winning strategy. By 2018 the company was in total collapse. Barnes & Noble lost $18 million that year, and fired 1,800 full time employees—in essence shifting almost all store operations to part time staff. Around that same time, the company fired its CEO due to sexual harassment claims. Every indicator was miserable. Same-store sales were down. Online sales were down. The share price was down more than 80%. And here’s what happened to its big digital initiative, the Nook eBook reader—a decline of more than 90%.”
Amazon appeared triumphant, having slayed Borders. All that was left for Barnes & Noble was, well, the bookstore, which had shifted its floorspace to toys, calendars, and cards—and coffee shops. So what happened? Gioia points to the leadership of James Daunt, who stepped in as CEO:
“It’s amazing how much difference a new boss can make. I’ve seen that firsthand so many times. I now have a rule of thumb: There is no substitute for good decisions at the top—and no remedy for stupid ones. It’s really that simple. When the CEO makes foolish blunders, all the wisdom and hard work of everyone else in the company is insufficient to compensate. You only fix these problems by starting at the top.”
Before coming to Barnes & Noble, Daunt was a key figure in turning around Waterstones, one of my favorite bookstores in Britain. Bookselling was in his blood. Gioia describes the single bookstore Daunt ran in London when was 26, a store he turned into “a showplace for books.”
Daunt didn’t follow the rules. He moved away from heavy discounts because he didn’t think books were overpriced. He didn’t give away (and thus devalue) books. He empowered people working in the stores. Most surprisingly, he rejected the common practice of accepting promotional money from publishers in exchange for prominent placement in the store, whether or not readers were interested in those books. He refused to “dumb-down the store offerings,” so he could “create an environment that’s intellectually satisfying—and not in a snobbish way, but in the sense of feeding your mind.”
Superpower of Love
But here’s the main takeaway from Gioia’s analysis, what he says is James Daunt’s “super power”: the man loves books.
“If you want to sell music, you must love those songs. If you want to succeed in journalism, you must love those newspapers. If you want to succeed in movies, you must love the cinema. But this kind of love is rare nowadays.”
Gioia grieves the loss of love among people in creative work, alongside the loss of confidence in the “redemptive power” of books. Once that love is lost, he writes, leaders “put their faith in something else” or they make decisions based on cash flow and other projections.
It’s too simple to say love for books is the primary reason for the Barnes & Noble turnaround, but surely we can acknowledge a key element in these recent wins was the decision to put “books and readers first, and everything else second.” Gioia writes,
“Even if you can’t teach this kind of love, you know it when you see it. There are people who are passionate about these things. They believe in them with ardor and devotion. You can find them and hire these people—and those are the individuals you can trust.”
Reminder for the Church
Passion. Ardor. Devotion. Love.
There’s a lesson here for those of us who mourn the decline of church membership or grieve the reality of falling attendance numbers at churches across the country.
Surveying the cultural trends, we might be tempted to put our faith in something else, to focus our attention not on the Word and the sacraments but on extraneous things—our coffee, our music, or our programming. Over time, pastors in the fields of labor lose any sense of being a leader in worship and become managers of religious dispensaries, as if they oversee a supermarket of spiritual goods and services.
Life can go on under these “dumbed down” circumstances, and churches may see attendance rise, but at what cost? At what point is the central purpose of the church lost, edged out by crowd-pleasing trinkets, just as Barnes & Noble had become, in the words of their CEO, “crucifyingly boring,” having lost confidence in the primary reason for its existence?
Come what may, there’s no substitute for love. Loving God. Loving to worship God. Loving to worship God with his people. Loving to hear God’s Word and to feast on his goodness at the table.
God forbid we lose the fire of love and hand down religious formulas that no longer burn within our hearts.
Pastors, we are not baristas. We are not managers, marketers, or speech makers. We are worshipers. And unless we’re filled with ardor and devotion for our task of leading our congregations into an encounter with the living God, our churches will never become an oasis of God-adoration in a parched and weary land of false worship.
There’s a lesson in the Barnes & Noble turnaround. Remember your first love. And don’t lose sight of your ultimate purpose.
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