This month, Leonard Riggio, Founder and Executive Chairman on Barnes and Noble, Inc will retire, though “he has no plans to sell his stock” according to the New York Times which announced Riggio’s plans to retire in April. The onetime college bookseller, who dropped out of New York University where he worked in the book store to pay his tuition, led the nationalization of book retailers when he bought the single Barnes and Noble store left after a prior period of mismanagement in 1971.
Through the ’70s and early ’90s, Riggio oversaw the expansion of the book store’s business by, among other things, discounting New York Times bestsellers for up to 40%. And–like Amazon, the online marketplace for books that opened in 1994 and grew to challenge not only traditional book selling, but the publishing industry as well, by offering deep discounts on books–Riggio weathered fierce criticism for sucking the soul out of the bookstore experience. Also like Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Riggio argues that the critiques leveled against his business were unfair and ill-informed.
“Our bookstores were designed to be welcoming as opposed to intimidating,” Riggio told the Times. “These weren’t elitist places. You could go in, get a cup of coffee, sit down and read a book for as long as you like, use the restroom. These were innovations that we had that no one thought was possible.” He added, “They would say, ‘You’re homogenizing bookselling,’ which was ridiculous because we were carrying 5,000 to 10,000 more titles than would be in a typical bookstore.”
Under Riggio’s leadership, as well as, in recent years, a revolving door cast of CEOs, Barnes and Noble has steadily lost the innovation fight with Amazon which is now the biggest online marketplace for books. But despite waves of store closings, and contentions with Amazon and battles with publishers along the way, the retailer continues to survive. While similar national chains like Borders Books have shuttered, B&N still has close to 650 stores across the U.S.
Riggio, who will retain a seat on the board, remains hopeful of his book store’s survival. And he has some right to be.
In spite of fierce competition from Amazon, independent bookstores have made a comeback with membership in the American Booksellers Association rising for the seventh consecutive year after a 10-year period of decline. Book sales are also rising, according to the AP. Perhaps, under a new Executive, Barnes and Noble will explore fresh ways to capitalize on its physicality in an increasingly isolating digital retail experience.
“We’ll continue to be the best bookseller we can be,” Riggio told the Times.