Ezra Klein: The unlikely bookstore of my dreams

Barnes & Noble had an excellent pandemic.

(Kyle Ellingson | The New York Times)

I remember when Barnes & Noble first opened in my hometown. Before that, we had a cramped Crown Books and some lovely, but limited, libraries. Barnes & Noble was a revelation. There was something wondrous about a room with that many books, each of them a doorway to unknown worlds, ideas and lives. That’s still the feeling, for me, of walking into a great bookstore: limitlessness.

I was, as you might suspect, a bookish and awkward child. My father, bless him, began taking me to Barnes & Noble three, often four, nights a week. I’d camp out in the fantasy section, paging through spinoffs in the extended “Star Wars” and Dungeons & Dragons worlds, wishing there were more entries in the “Dragonriders of Pern” series, crestfallen when the announcement rang out that the store would soon close.

As I got older, the books changed, but the habit didn’t. I went through a phase of obsessively reading car magazines, which Barnes & Noble also carried, and then periods where I’d pile philosophy tomes I didn’t understand or meditation manuals I wouldn’t follow atop the table in front of me. I loved sitting with a stack of graphic novels, which I rarely had the pocket money to purchase but that I read, then and now, with pure pleasure.

That was the lure of Barnes & Noble for me. It wasn’t so much a place to buy books as a place to be among them for as long as you wanted. Unlike Crown, Barnes & Noble had space to sit, and it seemed to want you to sit there. Unlike the library, it was open till 9, sometimes till 10. I hated school. I wasn’t invited to parties. I loved Barnes & Noble.

As I got older, I moved to towns with great independent bookstores. I went to college in Santa Cruz, California, and Bookshop Santa Cruz still holds pride of place in my heart. I will never be within 30 miles and not visit it. I lived in Washington, D.C., and spent my nights at Politics and Prose. And I watched Barnes & Noble — and Borders, which always felt to me like a wan imitation — begin to fail.

Commerce was moving relentlessly online. A Barnes & Noble store was large, but Amazon’s selection was endless. E-readers made questions of distance and delivery obsolete. I could download anything I wanted at 11:30 p.m. because I couldn’t sleep, and surely this one Thich Nhat Hanh tract I didn’t yet own would calm my nerves. And the chain bookstores were becoming something else: toy stores, DVD hawkers and, in a particularly weird bid to save the business, restaurants. Borders went bankrupt, and Barnes & Noble seemed likely to follow.

I loved Barnes & Noble, but I was helping to kill it. And then came a move to San Francisco, fatherhood and the pandemic. There is no joy to sitting your child next to you while you order children’s books on Amazon. And in the teeth of the pandemic, the libraries were closed for month after month after month. There is no Barnes & Noble in the city, but there is one a 20-minute, sometimes a 35-minute, drive south. I found myself playing out my own childhood in reverse, taking my kids there day after day so they’d have a place to sit and play and exist among books.

I wasn’t alone, it turns out. Barnes & Noble had an excellent pandemic. The chain, long in contraction, is expanding for the first time in a decade. It plans to open 30 new stores this year, including some in locations where Amazon tried, and failed, to build good brick-and-mortar bookstores. It is increasingly seen as an ally, rather than the enemy, of indie booksellers.

“How is it that bookstores do justify themselves in the age of Amazon?” James Daunt, the CEO of Barnes & Noble, asked during the Book Industry Study Group’s 2020 Keynote. “They do so by being places in which you discover books with an enjoyment, with a pleasure, with a serendipity that is simply impossible to replicate online. And to do that, you have to have a good bookstore.”

Daunt’s diagnosis of the industry is refreshingly simple: Good bookstores thrive; bad bookstores die. He waves away the belief that online shopping and e-readers have been unstoppable harbingers of demise. “My view was that the reason bookstores had failed to defend themselves against Amazon is simply they weren’t good enough,” he said, “and the only reason they would fail to defend themselves against Kindle is they wouldn’t be good enough.”

Daunt was the founder of Daunt Books in Britain. He took over the failing Waterstones chain in 2011 and is credited with saving it. Now he’s in charge of Barnes & Noble, too, and whatever he’s doing seems to be working. Why?

Daunt’s focus has been devolving power to local store managers. A great bookstore, he thinks, is a reflection of the community in which it exists. A Barnes & Noble next to a thriving church needs to be different from one down the street from a high school. He has been unwinding the deals the company made that let publishers pay for placement, deals that have prevented local stores from choosing what to display or stock.

“We sort of take three steps forward and then one step back,” Daunt said. “The forward is my constantly encouraging and pushing for the stores themselves to have the complete freedom to do absolutely whatever they want — how they display their books, price their books, sort their sections, anything. Those freedoms are difficult if you lived in a very straitjacketed world where everything was dictated to you.”

Daunt, as a onetime indie bookstore owner, believes that there’s something ineffable about a great bookstore. And he is dismissive of the kind of customer research that would cast that art as a science. I asked him, for instance, whether Barnes & Noble tracked the demographics of its customers. “My predecessors spent enormous amounts of energy and effort to answer questions of that sort, and I spend literally zero,” he said. “I have no interest at all in even beginning to think of that as a question. It’s totally irrelevant. Our stores are for everybody.”

Daunt’s view on e-book readers — of which Barnes & Noble has its own, the Nook — is that they aren’t quite the competition they’re made out to be. He recalls running Waterstones during the rise of the Kindle and agreeing to stock Kindles in-store. This seemed, to his critics, like selling the rope that would be used to hang him. He saw it differently.

“You e-read solely for convenience,” he said. “But the physical book is just a huge repository of pleasure. It’s hugely enjoyable to select a book in a nice bookstore that respects books. That’s just a real rush if it’s done nicely. As far as I was concerned, the e-reader would have people reading more, and the more people read, the more physical books they’d end up buying.”

That Barnes & Noble thrived during the pandemic does not mean it will thrive going forward. Plenty of the pandemic’s commercial winners are flailing now. Just ask Peloton — or, more to the point, anyone who bought its stock when it boomed during the lockdowns.

Barnes & Noble is a private company, so its financials aren’t visible. But Daunt insists that the gains are holding and that the reason should be obvious to anyone who loves books. “The pandemic was very good for reading,” he said. “You force people to spend a lot of time at home, and at some point, the TV becomes dull. People resorted to other forms of entertainment, and most of those we sold — books, of course, but also puzzles and games and the like. There’s a snapback in puzzles and games, but books carried on. They’re a habit. When people had the time to read, they found out they liked it, and after the pandemic, a significant portion carried on doing it.”

That’s been true, at least for me. I started going back to Barnes & Noble’s stores during the pandemic. I began buying more physical books and remembering how different their pleasures are. And I never stopped. I spent two days last week working out of Barnes & Noble’s cafe, a stack of journals and comics piled in front of me for breaks. It was lovely.

Barnes & Noble’s resurgence is a reminder that there is nothing inevitable about its (or any bookstore’s) demise. Great bookstores and libraries still provide something the digital world cannot: a place not just to buy or borrow books, but to be among them.

An undated portrait of Ezra Klein of The New York Times. (Anastasiia Sapon/The New York Times)

Ezra Klein is a columnist for The New York Times.