Barnes & Noble bought B. Dalton in 1986, instantly making B&N one of the nation’s largest book retailers.

Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

Barnes & Noble bought B. Dalton in 1986, instantly making B&N one of the nation’s largest book retailers.

Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

Closing the book on B. Dalton

  • Article by: JACKIE CROSBY
  • Star Tribune
  • January 5, 2010 - 9:19 PM

B. Dalton Bookseller is about to turn its last page, nearly 44 years after throwing open the doors to its first store at Southdale Center in Edina.

With just 50 stores in the once-mighty chain still open, parent company Barnes & Noble Inc. will shut down all remaining stores by month's end. Minnesota's last two locations, in Edina and Bemidji, will close Jan. 16.

It's another chapter in nearly two decades of upheaval in the book industry, as the rise of and national supercenters crowded out smaller chains and independents.

But back in its day, B. Dalton Bookseller was one of the nation's top retailers and on the cutting edge of technology.

Founded by the Dayton department stores in 1966, it underwent phenomenal growth in the 1970s and 1980s, eventually expanding to nearly 800 locations in 1986, when Barnes & Noble bought it.

Yes, it was a different time. Bruce Dayton, chair of the board at Dayton Hudson Corp., told the Minneapolis Star in 1973 that the retailer got into the book business as a key growth opportunity.

"There was the increased leisure time and increased income," he said. "The population was getting younger, and our studies showed that the young buy more books than older people."

Being part of the Dayton Hudson corporate family, which besides its department stores was also expanding a fledgling discount chain called Target, gave B. Dalton an edge.

In the early 1970s, it was the only major bookseller in the country to use computers. As such, B. Dalton correctly anticipated in the summer of 1972 that an unassuming book, "Jonathan Livingston Seagull," would become a blockbuster hit.

B. Dalton President Bruce Allbright said at the time that his buyers "took a deep breath" and ordered 70,000 copies of "Seagull" to stock the shelves for the holidays -- noting that an order of 10,000 was enough to put a book on the bestseller lists.

The gamble paid off. B. Dalton had plenty of the hot-selling inspirational book (priced at $4.95) while other booksellers ran out of stock.

In the early years, B. Dalton was known for its parquet floors, den-like furnishings and wide aisles -- a look the company said gave it the "open look of a contemporary college study hall or salon of learning."

At Southdale, a $1,200 chest-high globe of the world was as much of a centerpiece as the 10,000 titles on the shelves. While stores carried calendars, greeting cards and phonograph records, about 85 percent of the stores were filled with books.

By 1978, B. Dalton was the second-largest bookseller in the United States, behind Waldenbooks, but posted higher profits, according to the Los Angeles Times.

In late 1986, Dayton Hudson (now Target Corp.) announced it was selling the chain to New York-based Barnes & Noble in a deal analysts valued around $250 million.

The deal catapulted Barnes & Noble onto the national stage, expanding its reach across the country and turning it into the No. 2 bookseller.

But like Waldenbooks -- which Kmart bought for $295 million in 1984 and which is now operated by Borders Group Inc. -- B. Dalton stores have been disappearing from shopping malls for years. Borders Group will close all but about 130 mall-based Waldenbooks this month.

Barnes & Noble been closing 35 to 40 stores a year for the past eight years as leases expired, spokeswoman Carolyn Brown said Tuesday. The B. Dalton stores that were once considered huge and good moneymakers are neither of those things any longer. As Brown noted in an e-mail, these are "small format, low-volume stores in malls."

Jackie Crosby • 612-673-7335

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