A Closer Look at the Major Book Chains

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Barnes & Noble

Barnes & Noble was a single large bookstore on New York's lower Fifth Avenue when Len Riggio bought it in 1971. His experience until that time consisted of running contract college bookstores. In 1975, Barnes & Noble opened a forty-thousand-square-foot Sale Annex in New York and innovated such merchandising techniques as numbering best-sellers one through fifteen, and providing supermarket carts, park benches, and checkout counters.

Some years later, Barnes & Noble opened a large store on Fifth Avenue near Rockefeller Center, proceeded to gobble up Marboro Books and Bookmasters (smaller New York competitors), and ac-quired additional college bookstores.

Riggio, the marketing maestro who orchestrated book retailing into the twenty-first century, made his gutsiest move in 1986, when his company bought the eight-hundred-store B. Dalton Bookseller chain. Now, in addition to acquiring B. Dalton's largest bookstore on Fifth Avenue, a few blocks from his Barnes & Noble store, he had a pocketful of debt.

At this writing, Barnes & Noble is considered the world's largest bookselling company. It owns more than thirteen hundred book-stores, including seven-hundred-odd with the B. Dalton imprimatur, almost three hundred superstores, some bearing the Bookstop and Bookstar name, 260 college stores, thirty-six Doubleday Book Shops, twelve Scribner's Bookstores, a large mail-order book business, and a specialized book publishing program. In an eight-block stretch of Fifth Avenue between 49th and 57th streets, the company owns two Doubleday stores, a thirty-three-thousand-title B. Dalton store, the venerable Scribner's, and a Barnes & Noble.

As if this rapid growth is not spectacular enough, since mid-1993 the company has been opening a new store per week. The company's annual sales volume for 1994 exceeded $1.6 billion.

Borders Group

Today, this company is the parent of Borders Book Shops, Brentano's basic bookstores, Coles bookstores, and more than eleven hundred Waldenbook stores.

The Waldenbooks story takes the "humble beginnings" prize. Larry W. Hoyt opened a small book rental library in a department store in Bridgeport, Connecticut, on March 4, 1933, the day that President Franklin D. Roosevelt was inaugurated and closed the banks. In that Depression-ridden year, the three-cents-a-day charge per book was more than many could afford, but Hoyt's modest venture prospered.

Additional rental libraries followed, primarily in department stores. By 1948, there were 250, but the "paperback explosion," with books selling for twenty-five cents each, killed the rental business. To counter this effect, Hoyt stocked both paperbacks and hardcovers on his shelves in the department stores.

In 1962, in Pittsburgh's Northway Mall, he opened his first company-owned, independent retail store. He called it The Walden Book Store (after Thoreau's "Walden Pond").

Acquired by the department store chain Carter Hawley Hale, Waldenbooks expanded rapidly and, by 1981, was the first and only bookseller to operate in all fifty states.

In 1984, Waldenbooks was bought by Kmart Corporation, the second-largest retailer in the world. The following year, the book chain opened its first Waldenbooks and More, a ten-thousand-square-foot store. The same year, it acquired the famous Globe Bookstore in Washington, D.C. In the fall of 1986, Waldenbooks opened its one thousandth bookstore.

By 1995, the chain had more than thirteen hundred stores, including eleven hundred under the Waldenbooks name. Others in the chain include Waldenbooks and More superstores, Brentano's basic bookstores, Waldenkids children's bookstores, and Borders Book Shops, a chain it acquired in 1992. In 1995, Borders was spun off from its parent, Kmart.

Crown Books

Crown Books opened for business in Rockville, Maryland, in 1977. By 1995, it had more than two hundred bookstores including Super Crown outlets in five states and Washington, D.C., with annual sales exceeding $300 million.

In part, Crown achieved this rapid growth by building large, well- stocked stores, but perhaps more likely by its aggressive policy of discounting, highlighted in its advertising with the headline, "If you paid full price, you didn't buy it at Crown Books." Crown is the first outlet I ever saw that even discounted magazines.

Crown sells the New York Times hardcover best-sellers at a 40 percent discount, and other hardcover books and paperbacks at 10 to 25 percent discounts. This policy could be risky, particularly on the best-sellers, since Crown only makes a few percentage points of profit on these books. But Crown's astute marketing practices have enabled it to earn respectable profits.

Crown's Super Crown stores have had rapid growth, going from six in May 1991 to seventy, four years later. These book supermarkets carry three times the number of titles of a classic Crown store. The Super Crowns feature wide aisles, roving salespeople, piped-in classical music, and Crown Kids sections with play areas for children.
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