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.

In 1971, bookseller Leonard Riggio acquired the Barnes & Noble trade name and flagship bookstore in Manhattan, merging it with his own thriving bookselling business. Within a few years, he had grown the Barnes & Noble Fifth Avenue store in New York City into "The World’s Largest Bookstore," with 150,000 textbook and trade titles.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the Company made numerous acquisitions, adding new bookstores throughout the country. In 1987, the Company made its largest acquisition – 797 retail bookstores – when it purchased B. Dalton Bookseller, making the Company a nationwide retailer overnight and the second-largest bookseller in America. The Company also acquired Doubleday Book Shops, rights to the Scribner’s bookstore trade name, and BookStop. In the early 1990s, Mr. Riggio came up with the concept of the “superstore,” which helped revolutionize bookselling by combining a vast and deep selection of book titles with an experienced bookselling staff as well as a warm, comfortable and spacious atmosphere. The stores offered a comprehensive inventory of books, music, educational toys and games and gifts.

Barnes & Noble became a publicly traded company in 1993, and continued to grow throughout the 1990s, adding an e-commerce website, in May 1997, and publishing capabilities.  In 2001, the Company purchased, a leading study aids website, and in 2003, Sterling Publishing, which had been operating for more than half a century and had a deep library of titles in print.  In 2009, the Company entered the eBook market with its acquisition of Fictionwise and launched its NOOK® brand of e-Reading 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 e-Reader categories. In 2011, the Company added the Borders and Waldenbooks brands into its family. 

In 2016, Barnes & Noble began introducing new prototype stores in select markets across the country, featuring a contemporary aesthetic with books at the center, expanded food and beverage offerings, and comfortable seating for a welcoming customer experience.

In August of 2019, Barnes & Noble was acquired by Elliott Advisors (UK) Limited (“Elliott”) and taken private. Elliott’s acquisition of Barnes & Noble followed its June 2018 acquisition of Waterstones, the largest retail bookseller in the United Kingdom. James Daunt, Managing Director of Waterstones, was appointed CEO of Barnes & Noble.  Mr. Daunt has nearly 30 years of experience in bookselling. In 1990, after an early career as an investment banker, he opened his own bookstore in London, called Daunt Books. Daunt Books now has nine locations, mainly in London.

At present, Barnes & Noble serves over 600 communities in all 50 states and remains the #1 book retailer in the United States.