12 Fascinating Facts About Barnes & Noble

Joe Raedle, Getty Images
Joe Raedle, Getty Images

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.

Elvert Barnes, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

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.

uff-da, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

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.

Amazon's Under-the-Radar Coupon Page Features Deals on Home Goods, Electronics, and Groceries

Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Now that Prime Day is over, and with Black Friday and Cyber Monday still a few weeks away, online deals may seem harder to come by. And while it can be a hassle to scour the internet for promo codes, buy-one-get-one deals, and flash sales, Amazon actually has an extensive coupon page you might not know about that features deals to look through every day.

As pointed out by People, the coupon page breaks deals down by categories, like electronics, home & kitchen, and groceries (the coupons even work with SNAP benefits). Since most of the deals revolve around the essentials, it's easy to stock up on items like Cottonelle toilet paper, Tide Pods, Cascade dishwasher detergent, and a 50 pack of surgical masks whenever you're running low.

But the low prices don't just stop at necessities. If you’re looking for the best deal on headphones, all you have to do is go to the electronics coupon page and it will bring up a deal on these COWIN E7 PRO noise-canceling headphones, which are now $80, thanks to a $10 coupon you could have missed.

Alternatively, if you are looking for deals on specific brands, you can search for their coupons from the page. So if you've had your eye on the Homall S-Racer gaming chair, you’ll find there's currently a coupon that saves you 5 percent, thanks to a simple search.

To discover all the deals you have been missing out on, head over to the Amazon Coupons page.

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How Lolita Author Vladimir Nabokov Helped Ruth Bader Ginsburg Find Her Voice

Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 2016.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 2016.
Supreme Court of the United States, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The road to becoming a Supreme Court justice is paved with legal briefs, opinions, journal articles, and other written works. In short, you’d likely never get there without a strong writing voice and a knack for clear communication.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg learned these skills from one of the best: Vladimir Nabokov. Though most famous for his 1955 novel Lolita, the Russian-American author wrote countless works in many more formats, from short stories and essays to poems and plays. He also taught literature courses at several universities around the country, including Cornell—where Bader Ginsburg received her undergraduate degree in the early 1950s. While there, she took Nabokov’s course on European literature, and his lessons made an impact that would last for decades to come.

“He was a man who was in love with the sound of words. It had to be the right word and in the right word order. So he changed the way I read, the way I write. He was an enormous influence,” Ginsburg said in an interview with legal writing expert Bryan A. Garner. “To this day I can hear some of the things that he said. Bleak House [by Charles Dickens] was one of the books that we read in his course, and he started out just reading the first few pages about the fog and Miss Flite. So those were strong influences on my writing.”

As Literary Hub reports, it wasn’t the only time RBG mentioned Nabokov’s focus not only on word choice, but also on word placement; she repeated the message in a 2016 op-ed for The New York Times. “Words could paint pictures, I learned from him,” she wrote. “Choosing the right word, and the right word order, he illustrated, could make an enormous difference in conveying an image or an idea.”

While neither Dickens nor Nabokov were writing for a legal audience, their ability to elicit a certain understanding or reaction from readers was something Ginsburg would go on to emulate when expressing herself in and out of the courtroom. In this way, Nabokov’s tutelage illuminated the parallels between literature and law.

“I think that law should be a literary profession, and the best legal practitioners regard law as an art as well as a craft,” she told Garner.