The chief executive of Barnes & Noble, James Daunt, who took over last summer, thought the company’s stores were badly in need of some sprucing up. His plan, over the next two years or so, was to close locations on a rotating basis for a few weeks at a time to refurnish and refurbish.
Then the coronavirus closed almost all of them down at once.
This spring, Barnes & Noble used lockdowns around the country as a chance to refresh more than 350 of its 614 stores throughout the United States, using small teams to move furniture around, paint walls and bring in new books. Revamping the stores was part of a broader plan to revive the company, a difficult task to begin with that has become a lot more formidable under the weight of the pandemic.
“I knew I wanted to rip these stores apart and put them back together in a different way,” Daunt said. “And then suddenly: ‘Oh my goodness, they’re all shut. Let’s get to work.’
“At the same time,” he added, “we didn’t want to spend any money, because we didn’t know how long this pandemic was going to go on for.”
Jonathan Castro, the manager of a Barnes & Noble at a strip mall in Yonkers, N.Y., spent about two weeks in April and May taking books off the shelves and reorganizing the furniture. He was one of three people who came into the store every other day, alternating with another group of three.
Some of the walls are painted blue now, and the signs look a little different. Many more of the books face out on shelves, so that customers can see the covers as they walk by. The books have been reorganized — for instance, nutrition titles and cookbooks are next to each other now, instead of on opposite ends of the store. And overall, the floor feels much more open. Many of the bulky displays have been thrown away — Daunt said every store got a dumpster — and replaced by smaller tables that are easier to browse and to walk around.
“It’s a lot more open,” Castro said. “I can’t even explain how tight it was in here. You couldn’t really shop.”
But much about the store remains the same. The brown leafy wallpaper is still there, as are the green and beige carpets. The bookshelves aren’t new, and have the chips and scuffs to prove it. There are still indents in the rugs that mark the old layout.
Daunt said the plan to more thoroughly update the stores remains in place, with the hope of a lot less disruption now that these initial changes have been made during the lockdown. The question of when this will happen is still very much in the air. Books have sold well during the pandemic, but with stores closed this spring and the surging virus now threatening locations that have reopened, it’s been an extraordinarily difficult year for the company. Store sales are up from where they were at the height of the lockdown, Daunt said, but still down about 20% overall from last year.
In the meantime, shoppers are adjusting to the newly reorganized stores.
“Where can I find all the puzzles?” a woman demanded at the Yonkers location last week. “Since you changed everything.”
Castro jumped into action and led her affably to a shelf nearby. “They’re right over here,” he said.