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A Juicy Bit of Bookish Intrigue: B&N Kicks Ron Boire to the Curb and I Give My Two Cents

It was a beautiful morning in the middle of the week and Len Riggio stepped out of his backdoor and gazed at his sculpture garden. The birds were singing. A dragonfly flew here and there. He wandered around the grass without shoes and sipped a drink that had a little umbrella in it. 

This is wonderful. I can’t wait to read Michael Chabon’s new novel. Maybe I’ll read it in my hammock, he thought as he smoothed his thick mustache.

Len, 75 years young, was excited because he was about to retire and like any good bookworm was dreaming of all of the books he had never had time to read. After being Barnes & Noble’s chief commander for forty years, he was finally going to be untethered, forever. Perhaps he could sail around the world. Maybe live in Tibet for a year.

His beautiful wife stuck her head out of the back door.

“Honey. There’s a call for you.” she said as she handed him his cell phone, “I think it’s Mary Ellen.”

“Hello?”

“Len! Oh my God! Ron Boire is about to — ——- ——– ————- —————— —— — ———— —— —- ———- —– – ——— ————– —— —– ———–!!!!! Help us, Len Riggio. You’re our only hope!”

“Dammit.”

As though spotting a bat signal, Len was pulled once again into the vortex of crappy decisions being made by someone he hoped would be his successor. He handed his drink to his wife and readied himself for a trip back to Barnes & Noble.*

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If you heard champagne corks popping earlier in the week, it was the hundreds of Barnes and Noble booksellers celebrating the release of Barnes and Noble CEO, Ron Boire, back into the wild. In a surprising and unusual bit of oversharing, B&N announced his firing as just that. A firing.

Now, I don’t know what happened but if they ousted him weeks before Riggio’s retirement, without keeping this close to the vest, then Ron may have been this close to rolling out an initiative of some sort that would have been very detrimental to the company. That, or people just really didn’t like him.

 

I’ll never tell you where I got this.

 

I know a lot of booksellers who loathed him but that’s par for the course when Len Riggio decides to make some dude who has never run a bookstore company, CEO of Barnes and Noble. Isn’t this the third try in a row in so many years? Hired in 2015, Ron was CEO of Sears Canada. Not exactly the sort of motivation a bookseller needs since they’re getting directives from a leader who doesn’t know the first thing about bookselling, a retail space unlike any other.

I don’t like making light of someone losing their job but this guy is going to get a nice good-bye check (the equally useless, Mike Huseby, was given $10.5M) so don’t feel too bad for him. Sales in the company are down during a time when independent bookstores sales are soaring. This confuses me because I actually admired recent company initiatives that were made under his rule. Restaurants serving beer are being tested out in a few stores. Toys & Games continues to be a money maker. Adult coloring books were ordered by the pound and vinyl is now a section of its own in some locations. They came out with a loophole that could allow a self published author to have a book signing. I like how progressive the company has been lately but I was also seeing posts by employees who were upset by unrealistic store event expectations, being forced to sell B&N Mastercards, and no hours for booksellers to get projects done.

This is not a good time to be a B&N bookseller.

 

The Silver Foxes are Running

Oh, Mark Bottini, you saucy little minx. Long did I have a crush on Len Riggio’s first mate. These big wigs grew Barnes & Noble into the Fortune 500 company that it is. The booksellers respected both men because both are READERS. They knew the book business and is it really that hard to find someone who does? You have 600 stores full of people. None the less, Len unleashed Barnes & Noble in its current form, in the late 60’s and Bottini started out as a bookseller in a B. Dalton. Since they worked hard to get to the top, they had a loyalty from employees that is hard to find.

Poor Len was hoping to retire soon but this news about Boire has forced him to come back temporarily and figure out what is next for the company he cares so much about. Bottini recently retired as did longtime Riggio B.F.F., Mitch Klipper, but not before making headlines when he sold most of his stock. That only scared people, including this little piggie, into selling off their own stock, leading to the pretty dismal quote we have today.

And what of Len Riggio’s hippy, dippy brother, Steve? He ran the company for a few years, in the late 90’s, early 2000’s and did fairly well when he was put on track. Then his daughter died unexpectedly and he left to grieve, never to be seen again. That was a long time ago and perhaps he is more robust now, ready to take charge again? I know the booksellers would be happy to see him. Do you guys have a cousin? I think any Riggio right now, will do.

 

 

Who was the really bad guy in charge? William Lynch.

He’s seen as both the savior of B&N as well as the creator of most of the problems you see today. I remember the day the recession hit because I was at the Barnes & Noble annual manager meeting. Steve Riggio was CEO. We were in a unique and comfortable position compared to other retail companies because we were in the black. B&N had ALOT of extra money saved, thanks to the efforts of the Riggio brothers. Then William Lynch takes over and, having no book or publishing experience whatsoever, decides he’s going to use all of our money to go full Nook on your ass. His decisions were wise to a point. Yes, we had to have an electronic reader to compete with Amazon, at the time. No, we did not have to spend millions adding Nook kiosks or tables in the stores and then forcing book people to learn tech (we couldn’t) and then spending millions on training videos, customer support, and a revolving door of booksellers who couldn’t handle the new technology. Then there was the biggest Nook fail of all time: being last to add a camera to our device. There was a time when Nook looked more high tech than Kindle and we were winning. We had the first color device and the next step was coming out with a Nook with camera but the next release was so anti-climactic that we were all embarrassed. The new holiday released Nook had, wait for it, more memory. Kindle then came out with their device, plus camera, and B&N was never on the offensive, again.

William Lynch used Barnes & Noble like his fun money piggy bank. All of our savings was gone by the time he was ousted and given a nice paycheck for his trouble. Before he left, he was using tons of our cash to try and create a Barnes & Noble headquarters in Palo Alto, further emphasizing his efforts in making B&N a tech company. Run along, William. Run along.

Is your store understaffed? Do you not have a buffer savings? Is your Nook kiosk still blocking the front entrance? You can thank him for all of that. Hiring Mr. Lynch was the best and worst decision Len Riggio ever made.

MY TWO CENTS

I like to fix things. I like to get in a room and we talk about new ideas without having anyone say, “we can’t do that’ and then we look at what we have. Here’s my two cents if anyone cares.

Make sure B&N restaurants go heavy on the literary theme.

I think this is such a great idea but I saw a few photos and these test store restaurants don’t really look all that special. They certainly don’t look “literary”. There is a bookstore chain that brought down my old Barnes & Noble Hyde Park store by paying authors to do signings, but what stood out to me was that they also had a restaurant called, Bronte. It has paintings of authors and it’s a bookworm’s dream restaurant. Go wild, B&N. Have Mark Twain Hoe Cakes and Little Women Cherry Cordial. With all of these non book CEO’s, you have forgotten that B&N is a mecca for readers.

You also need to start building your B&N’s with a room that book clubs and gamers can pay you for using. These can also be used for your events.

Find good gift buyers.

Because most of them are horrible. Most of them have been horrible for years and the gift section has been neglected since Toys & Games started making 110% over comp. However, gift is also a wasted opportunity. Have your new gift buyers look at Etsy. I know a small company that makes literary soaps. See if they can expand their production and look for other small literary retailers in that vein. Check out My Favorite Things for some inspiration. THAT is what Barnes & Noble gift areas should look like. I should be able to go into a B&N knowing I’m going to find bookish gifts I’ve never seen before. And ease up on the journals, bookmarks, and cheap junk. Seriously. We can go anywhere for that stuff.

Localize Store Hours.

Really, guys? Do I have to point out the obvious? My last bookstore never made any money, certainly not enough to pay the three booksellers left working in the store, from 8pm – 10pm, during the week. On Saturdays, maybe two people came in from 9pm – 11pm. What are you thinking Barnes & Noble? Many stores begged to have their hours changed so we stop bleeding money and hours but corporate says they will think about it, postpones the decision, and eventually says, no. This is a no brainer so do something about it.

Get. Rid. Of. Frontlist.

Remember the tale of “The Emperor Has No Clothes On”? Or something like that. Well, when we were trained on Frontlist (I will explain) all of us had to keep a straight face despite knowing this was insanely unproductive. No one asks booksellers for their opinions.

No ridiculous decision has cost the company so much money while making it think it’s actually making money. Despite standards, Frontlist takes hours and hours to do. Sometimes we have to do it on Saturdays and Sundays because there is so much of it. Some people have quit or been fired over it. All of the booksellers at all of the stores hate it, struggle with it, and we all fake its success when the big wigs come in.

Frontlist was created a few years ago when someone in corporate had to justify their job and come up with something new. Frontlist meant having to pull out every hardback, new TP (large paperback), and in some cases, all new MM (small paperbacks) so that they can ALL BE FACED OUT in front of the section. It doesn’t end there. New books have to take the place of the oldest books in those face out bays and there’s no easy way to find those oldest books. Go ahead and check out the first bays in the sections at your local Barnes & Noble. Stare. Admire. Compliment. Appreciate the fact that it’s the bane of our existence and encompasses most of our time that could be spent hand selling and making money. I have a big mouth so when I cried foul, my manager waved a paper in front of my face that showed Frontlist had raised our sales in Fiction hardbacks. Congratulations because it also costed us hundreds of dollars of man hours that week. It will be a gargantuan task (again) but B&N must get rid of this morale buster.

 

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Events must be localized (and given more funding).

‘Tis true that Barnes & Noble has one big weapon over Amazon and that is its floor space and the ability to use it for events. One of the worst decisions in the last few years has been forcing booksellers to create these awe inspiring events on a shoe string budget and with no hours to put people on the sales floor.

The Emperor has no clothes on. If you’re telling most stores that they have to control their hours and they won’t get bonuses or good reviews if they don’t, you shouldn’t be able to force them to use one hundred hours for a mandatory event. Most of these events are not even worth it because they aren’t localized. Just because Vinyl Night works in NYC doesn’t mean people in Ohio give a crap.

One of the worst nights I had, working at B&N, was Frozen night. This was a good money maker but like I wrote above, we had to control our hours while still holding this promoted event. It was popular. We counted 200 people in the store and we had a total of…eight booksellers working it. We were yelled at by parents when we didn’t have enough craft material or promoted items. Many said they felt bad for us and that was their lasting impression of Barnes & Noble.

You also have to give these whirlwind events a good budget. Sadly, most events are funded by employees who are having a hard time just buying clothes for their kids. I’ve seen it with my own eyes and this enrages me.

 

You might laugh but this guy used his own money to try to create a nice event for your kid.

 

Hire for top dog positions from the publishing world.

Perhaps you don’t have to go far to find your new CEO and you certainly don’t need to look at Best Buy, Sears, or Toys R Us again. Len has spent decades creating good relationships with most publishers and I know many reps and agents who would be great in B&N corporate positions. They know what booksellers do and they understand the book business as an island in retail.

Open Bookmaster to Independent Bookstores

This is a radical idea I had a year ago but it benefits both big box B&N and the used bookstores around them. Many B&N booksellers get asked every day for an out of print book that you may find at a local small bookstore. I go to small bookstores for out of print or antique books that I can’t find at large chains. If these independent stores could order from the local Barnes & Noble and vice versa, and both get a cut, this benefits everyone. It’s also an excellent PR move and something Amazon can’t do.

Allow publishers a pay to play option.

I have also been thinking about this for some time. Since booksellers don’t make a large amount of money, publishers should be able to give incentives to booksellers for handselling so many copies of any chosen book. This gives them control of a particular title’s sales. They could give monetary prizes and you will all be surprised how many B&N employees will jump on the chance to win just by doing what we do best. Or did best (see below).

The most serious situation is regarding Barnes & Noble staff.

 

I found a meme that captures everything Barnes & Noble staffing is, today.

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I don’t know what to do about the SPH and hiring problem that plagues 99% of stores. Booksellers gripe on private media groups about being the only person on the sales floor having to handle customers, Nook, and a ridiculous amount of merchandising. Why is merch so bad? Because now every inch of the store is “real estate” that publishers can buy and if we don’t keep switching these books out, we don’t make the money.

Guess who also doesn’t make any money? Booksellers, for the most part. They are usually hired in at minimum wage so the person who needs to know Tolstoy’s entire canon, give friendly and knowledgeable customer service, be able to learn merchandising and Bookmaster within a week, and has to give tech support to Samsung devices, is making the same amount as someone cleaning bird poop off of a fast food franchise window. Maybe even less.

It doesn’t help that part timers are kept under 20 hours a week (usually close to 10-15, just in case) in a desperate attempt to keep them from getting medical benefits. This is unlikely to change because B&N can’t afford to pay part timers, benefits, like they used to. While getting 10 hours, they are expected to have full availability for Barnes & Noble only. I have seen people not get hired because they had another job.

So a lot of smart people are running and the smart ones left are considering how to leave or how much more they can take. Barnes and Noble employees are my favorite people and I’m a Mama Bear if anyone tries to disrespect or insult them. It’s starting to get to a point where there will be no one left to insult. Managers get paid fairly well so this entry pay for booksellers only attracts high schoolers and the retired. This is the situation B&N has found itself in. I’m seeing an exodus of experienced booksellers and managers who have realized they can find a job where they don’t have to deal with a cart of Frontlist while having to be the only salesperson on the floor on a Saturday afternoon. My “work wife”, left B&N last week after fourteen years with the company. She left for a lower paying job because it will be less stressful and she gets to know what it’s like to have a weekend off. If you just put her and I together, Barnes & Noble lost almost 30 years of bookselling experience.

This is unacceptable.

YOU-LISTEN to the booksellers.

If you had listened to the booksellers you might have known that those stupid book sculptures from 2014 would have failed. After the holiday season, we couldn’t give them away on clearance and every single store employee could have told you that the first time we saw them.

The booksellers have an “anonymous” email/phone line to call but it is not utilized, in my experience, for suggestions and ideas but mostly for complaints and problems within the store. What corporate has not realized for some time is that the booksellers are on the front lines. The ground troops that hear and see everything and one little visit every few months from a District Manager is not going to cultivate the wonderful ideas these employees have. Corporate employees make good money so their first instinct is to throw money at a problem. These booksellers look at creative solutions.

The District Manager is the most useless position in the company. Some make six figures and do nothing but hang out at home while calling in for meetings once in awhile and calling the stores maybe once a week to put pressure on the Store Manager because they’re getting pressure from their boss. Sometimes they have to put out fires but this comes in spurts. There must be a way to combine the Regional and District Manager positions or have one highly respected Store Manager in the district do the job. From my 15 years of experience, no store has ever been inspired to change, sold more, or pivoted because of a District Manager’s influence. Some don’t even care to say hello to the booksellers and the visits are infrequent formalities. The Emperor has no clothes on.

The booksellers are the ones who can turn this company around and it’s time that corporate realized this. Or else your best and brightest are going to…

 

 

*This was an obviously falsified reenactment. Mary Ellen would never be unprofessional. 

Nicolina Torres
Nicolina Torres

Nikki worked for Barnes & Noble for 15 years, in seven stores. She is the author of This Red Fire, Young Nation, and Girls Who Wear Glasses. She prefers to live in the country and is a new aunt to a potential bookworm.

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