Barnes & Noble Just Bought a Beloved Indie Bookstore. Now What?

The lead story today turned out to be so interesting that I am making it a one story day.

Barnes & Noble Buys Tattered Cover

In a surprise (to me at least) move, Barnes & Noble has bought Tattered Cover, a local indie chain of bookstores in the Denver, Colorado area. Tattered Cover had been in business for more than 50-years, but a series of events, from COVID to bad PR to bad management, put the store, which regularly appears on lists of the best indie bookstores in the country, in financial distress. Barnes & Noble is only paying $1.8 million for the company, which includes current inventory, because things are pretty bad over there. Now, Tattered Cover’s fate is notable, especially to locals, but the real story to me is B&N buying an existing indie bookstore.

There is no word I can find about what the company plans to do with the store, though there are a few possible paths that seem most likely.

First, B&N could keep Tattered Cover as it is, branding, locations, hiring, staff, and all the other things that go into running a bookstore, perhaps with some B&N inventory management on the back end. Indie bookstores are doing well on the whole, and maybe the private equity brains over there (remember that Barnes & Noble is owned by Elliot Investment Management, an NYC hedge fund that also owns Waterstones in the UK) saw a distressed asset that will some financial ballast, could be a profitable addition to its portfolio.

Second, Barnes & Noble could see this as a quick, local expansion in this market. Ready made locations, stock, staff, and customer awareness. Presto: five newly-badged Barnes & Noble stores where people already know to go for books.

Third, some hybrid-weirdness of “Tattered Cover by B&N” or “Barnes & Noble at Tattered Cover” that neither leverages whatever local affinity there is for the store that was nor incorporates the stores into the efficient borg that B&N is trying to be.

The most interesting direction would be a wholly-owned Tattered Cover that remains the Tattered Cover, at least from the customer’s perspective. Could this work? Could they have their cake (hey this is a local store, right? love us like you love indies!) and eat it too (private equity cash register noise here). This would send shivers down the spine of other independent bookstores–except perhaps the ones trying to retire.

Here in Portland (and I assume other places) there is a trend for “restaurant groups” to open a bunch of new spots that all look and feel like local, traditionally-owned individual restaurants, but are actually part of a much larger, sprawling business. A couple of my favorite places are part of these companies, and I keep trying to figure out how much I care. Would I prefer to be eating at a place that is somebody’s dream and livelihood? Yea. Does it materially change the actual dining experience? Not as far as I can tell.

A Tattered Cover owned by Barnes & Noble but otherwise just being Tattered Cover will be the biggest challenge yet to the indie v. everyone else dichotomy that has been in place for the last 30 years. I don’t think anybody can guess how it will play out–or what to hope for.

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