No matter how affordable and convenient e-book readers have become, there’s still nothing quite like strolling through the aisles of a well-stocked bookstore and flipping through the pages of a real book. That’s excellent news for Barnes & Noble, the most recognizable brick-and-mortar bookseller that operates more than 625 stores nationwide and sells 190 million titles a year. The chain was recently acquired for $683 million by the private equity firm Elliott Advisors, which plans to reinvigorate the brand. Here are some margin notes on the company's storied history.
1. Barnes & Noble began as textbook retailer.
Charles Montgomery Barnes decided to open a bookstore in Wheaton, Illinois in 1873. A nearby college and public school created demand for textbooks, which could be easily restocked thanks to freshly-laid railroads. Barnes’ son, William, took over in 1902 before moving to New York City in 1917 and partnering with fellow bookseller Gilbert Clifford Noble. By 1932, their flagship Barnes & Noble store on Fifth Avenue was selling books of all kinds, though in a somewhat peculiar manner.
2. Barnes & Noble pioneered the use of "book-a-terias."
Long before the McDonald brothers imagined an assembly line for hamburgers, Barnes and Noble used their New York store to experiment with a revolutionary new layout. Customers in the 1940s would approach an employee who filled out a sales slip; another clerk would package the book; a third would handle the money to complete the transaction. While expedient, the cafeteria-like flow and awkward division of labor never caught on.
3. Barnes & Noble was one of the first stores to pipe in Muzak.
Muzak, the branded term for the serene instrumental sounds heard in retail outlets, was started in the 1920s by the Wired Radio Company of Cleveland, Ohio. Purporting to have scientifically-arranged scores to maximize the soothed moods of consumers, the business moved to New York in 1936. Barnes & Noble became an early adopter in 1940, installing an elaborate speaker system that offered music, sports updates, and news. The tunes were also meant to offset employee fatigue by playing faster beats at regular intervals.
4. A college dropout wound up buying Barnes & Noble out.
By the 1960s, Barnes & Noble had outlived its namesakes and began to entertain offers from buyers. Leonard Riggio was a part-time college student at New York University who worked at the campus bookstore and was frustrated to discover he wouldn’t be allowed to oversee its operation. He dropped out and opened a competing store, the Student Book Exchange, in Greenwich Village in 1965. The business grew so successful that he was able to purchase Barnes & Noble’s flagship store (which was its own location at the time) in 1971 for $1.2 million.
5. Barnes & Noble sold books to people who didn't want to read them.
Not that they couldn’t read—they just preferred not to. When Riggio opened an 80,000 square foot annex near his Fifth Avenue location in 1975, closeout books were sometimes sold by the pound. This generic approach filled a need for customers who wanted books to fill shelf space in their homes, effectively making them a decorative item. Buyers who loaded up were even granted use of grocery-style shopping carts.
6. Barnes & Noble wanted people to loiter.
While newsstands didn’t take kindly to people reading without purchasing, Barnes & Noble was an early advocate of letting customers stretch out and relax a bit. Riggio found the sales annex so large that it was easy to install benches, telephone booths, and bathrooms, making it easier for people to linger. Although he received criticism from people thinking his stores would become glorified rest stops, Riggio was right: People would browse longer if you let them pee. He later added armchairs, coffee, and cooking demonstrations.
7. Barnes & Noble was online long before Amazon.
Blood was drawn early and often when Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com vied for e-commerce dominance in the late 1990s: the latter even sued the former for claiming to be “Earth’s biggest bookstore.” While Amazon got the brunt of compliments for their pioneering internet venture, they weren’t first out of the gate. In the 1980s, Barnes & Noble tested the viability of selling books via an online service called Trintex. An electronic shopping interface funded by IBM and Sears, Trintex worked on personal computers and allowed subscribers to shop online. The service later became known as Prodigy.
8. Barnes & Noble was the first bookstore to advertise on television.
In 1974, the bookstore hired ad agency Geer, DuBois to produce television spots for the New York City market, a first for the industry. Their tag line—“Of course, of course”—became a minor catchphrase in its time. Because the brand was still growing, however, Barnes & Noble wasn't able to be billed for a lot of money. When Riggio acquired the B. Dalton chain in 1987, he turned over their substantial $9 million advertising account to the agency as a way of rewarding them for their work.
9. Barnes & Noble turned down Tom Hanks.
In Nora Ephron's 1998 film You’ve Got Mail, Tom Hanks plays an executive at a major bookstore chain who falls in love with an independent proprietor (Meg Ryan) whose store he happens to be pushing out of business. Ephron wanted to use Barnes & Noble as the monolithic company but, despite the high-profile product placement, Riggio turned her down. The plot may have hit too close too home: in 1996, the mega-store’s presence smothered the smaller Shakespeare & Co. bookshop on Manhattan's Upper West Side.
10. You can read any Barnes & Noble Nook e-book for free. (Just not for long.)
While relaxing in stores with a book and cappuccino was previously an analog experience, the company’s Nook e-reader offers an interesting twist: in-store shoppers can read any book available on the format, for free, for up to one hour per day to assess their interest.
11. Barnes & Noble used to have a store inside an old movie palace.
While most of Barnes & Noble's storefronts stick with the traditional green template, Rochester, Minnesota’s Chateau Theater was a pretty opulent exception: a movie theater that opened in 1927 and was converted into a bookstore in the 1980s. (The marquee stayed intact.) Barnes & Noble left the building after its lease expired in late 2014, setting the stage for the city to buy the theater back the following year.
12. Barnes & Noble once banned comic books.
Irate that DC Comics parent company Warner Bros. made a series of comic book collections available exclusively on Amazon’s Kindle device, Barnes & Noble pulled more than 100 DC titles from their inventory in 2011. Writer Neil Gaiman observed that the move basically gave Amazon the print exclusive to those titles, as well. DC titles have since returned to stores.