Barnes & Noble has a rich history that can be traced back to 1873 when Charles M. Barnes started the business in his Illinois home. Nearly a century later, Leonard Riggio acquired the flagship Barnes & Noble trade name and over the next four decades transformed the company into the bookselling giant that it is today.
Barnes & Noble's beginnings can be traced to 1873, when Charles M. Barnes started a book business from his home in Wheaton, Illinois. In 1917, his son, William, went to New York to join G. Clifford Noble in establishing Barnes & Noble. During the height of the Great Depression, what later became the Barnes & Noble flagship store was opened on Fifth Avenue at 18th Street in New York City. This store developed a worldwide reputation for excellence by serving millions of customers with its comprehensive selection of general trade books, academic titles and textbooks, and medical books.
Leonard Riggio, the modern-day Founder of the company, began his bookselling career while attending New York University in the early 1960s. Working as a clerk in the university bookstore, he became convinced that he could do a better job serving students, and he opened a competing store of his own. With a small investment, Mr. Riggio established the Student Book Exchange (SBX) in Manhattan's Greenwich Village in 1965. The store quickly became one of New York’s finest bookstores, known for its knowledgeable staff, wide selection and great service.
By the 1970s, Mr. Riggio’s thriving business, which included six other college bookstores, acquired the flagship Barnes & Noble trade name and flagship bookstore in Manhattan. Within a few years, Mr. Riggio transformed the Fifth Avenue store into "The World’s Largest Bookstore," with 150,000 textbook and trade titles.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the company made a number of groundbreaking moves. In 1974, Barnes & Noble was the first bookseller in America to advertise on television. Aired in the New York market, the Barnes & Noble “Of Course! Of Course!” commercials won awards and were so memorable that customers still recall them.
In 1975, the company took a bold and audacious step by becoming the first bookseller in America to discount books by offering New York Times bestsellers at 40% off publishers’ list prices. Barnes & Noble expanded on that idea by opening a 40,000-square-foot Sale Annex directly across from its flagship store.
The company began to expand in the New York/Boston markets by opening smaller discount bookstores. In addition, it acquired two local chains, BookMasters and Marboro Books, which were converted to Barnes & Noble discount stores. Initially, these stores were very successful and expanded to 50 locations. They were eventually phased out in favor of the company’s larger-format book superstores. The acquisition of Marboro Books gave Barnes & Noble a foothold in the growing mail-order business, which served as a platform to reach customers nationwide. This business served as a laboratory that revealed undercurrents of demand, prompting Barnes & Noble to begin publishing its own books for sale to its growing mail-order customer base. These titles were primarily out-of-print books that were reissued in high-quality, affordable editions.
Through the 1980s, Barnes & Noble experimented with different store formats and sizes, seeking to develop a suburban superstore version of the original Barnes & Noble store. In 1987, the company made its largest acquisition when it purchased B. Dalton Bookseller from Dayton Hudson. This acquisition of 797 retail bookstores thrust the company onto the national scene, making Barnes & Noble a nationwide retailer overnight and the second-largest bookseller in America. The company also acquired Doubleday Book Shops from the Bertelsmann Company and the rights to the Scribner’s bookstore trade name from Macmillan. To further evolve its superstore strategy, Barnes & Noble purchased BookStop, a company operating discount book superstores in Texas, in 1989. This acquisition gave the company key insights into the ingredients behind a successful superstore strategy, from real estate to operations to marketing and merchandising.
In the early 1990s, the company refined its superstore concept and established the modern generation of Barnes & Noble superstores, which today represent over 96 percent of our retail sales. Barnes & Noble superstores have become the information piazzas of America. They combine a vast and deep selection of book titles with an experienced bookselling staff and a warm, comfortable and spacious atmosphere. They also offer a comprehensive inventory of music (including vinyl), DVDs, gift product, and toys and games. Further enhancing the stores’ appeal as destinations are our cafés, which through an exclusive arrangement with Starbucks, distinguish Barnes & Noble as the only bookseller serving America’s premier coffee brand.
Barnes & Noble became a publicly traded company in 1993.
The company began selling direct to consumers with its mail-order catalogue in the 1970s, but in the late 1980s began experimenting with selling books online in a joint venture between Sears and IBM called Trintex. In the mid-1990s, Barnes & Noble sold books on CompuServe and later opened a full-fledged book superstore on America Online in March 1997. The company’s website, BN.com, was launched in May of that year.
Today, the BN.com website serves as the company’s largest store, enabling customers to order any book any time from anywhere. Customers also have access through BN.com to millions of used and out-of-print book titles from a network of authorized book dealers, as well as a vast selection of music CDs, DVDs, gift product, and toys and games.
The company began its publishing efforts by reissuing affordable editions of out-of-print titles. Its editions of The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense by Suzette Haden Elgin and The Columbia History of the World by John Garrity have sold over 250,000 and 1 million copies, respectively. Over the next decade, Barnes & Noble’s nationwide store base enabled it to expand its publishing operation and become a leader in illustrated book publishing.
In the early 2000s, the company made two acquisitions that expanded its publishing capability. In 2001, Barnes & Noble purchased SparkNotes.com, a leading study aids website, offering free online access to literature notes and more than 1,000 study guides on everything from literature to chemistry to computer science. SparkNotes converted its top study guides into print publications, and they have rapidly become bestsellers. In 2003, Barnes & Noble purchased Sterling Publishing, which has been in business for nearly 70 years and has more than 5,000 titles in print, including educational resources, children’s picture books, puzzles and games, adult fiction, craft and photography, cookbooks, self-help and classics.
The company has leveraged its unique assets, iconic brands and reach to compete in the distribution of digital content. In 2009, the company entered the eBook market and launched its NOOK® brand of eReading products, which provide a fun, easy-to-use and immersive digital reading experience. Over the past several years, the company has introduced several devices in the tablet and eReader categories. With NOOK, customers gain access to the expansive NOOK Store® of more than 4 million digital books, plus periodicals and comics. In addition to NOOK devices, the company makes it easy for customers to enjoy content across a wide array of popular devices through Free NOOK Reading Apps™, available for Android™, iOS® and Windows®.
Starting in Fall 2016, Barnes & Noble is introducing a new store concept in several locations across the country featuring a contemporary aesthetic where books remain the hero, an expanded food and beverage offering, including wine and beer, and a major commitment to hospitality featuring table-side service. The new stores will also include a special mobile experience for both booksellers and customers, featuring a mobile app that will provide a digital layout of the store to facilitate finding books and other merchandise, and the ability for customers to text booksellers for assistance.