Len Riggio, chairman of Barnes & Noble, Inc., opened BookExpo 2018 with a speech lauding the work of booksellers and their role as catalysts for social change, as well as extending a peace laurel to the independent bookselling community and warning that booksellers need to remain nimble in the face of change.

Riggio was introduced by Oren Teicher, the CEO of the American Booksellers Association, who admitted that such a thing “would have been impossible to imagine not so long ago.” But both men emphasized that it is in the long-term interest of the general public for both B&N and the independent bookselling community to thrive in tandem.

“I don’t see the independent bookstores in mortal competition with B&N” and “the more bookstores the better,” said Riggio, noting that demand for books rises the more stores you have in a given community. “There could never be too many bookstores of any type in America.”

Riggio pointed out that after the Borders bookstore chain closed in 2011, of the hundreds of communities where B&N and Borders were running stores in proximity, B&N picked up only 30-40% of the Borders business. “The rest of it just went poof,” he said. Today, in communities where a new independent bookstore opens in proximity to a B&N store, there may be a small loss in business for the chain, he said, but there appears to be an increase in overall book consumption.

Underscoring the “I come in peace” tone of his speech, Riggio added, “we need to open more stores than we close” and “opening stores is a good thing,” before joking that he still would not want to see an independent bookstore operating in the parking lot of every Barnes & Noble. “Enlightenment has its limits,” he said.

Reflecting on his more than half a century of experience as a bookseller, Riggio also returned to topics that have obsessed him over several decades: the need for stores to cater to the mass market by offering the widest selection possible and the rising price of books as in impediment to increasing the number of readers. “Today, the average paperback costs two and a half times the minimum wage,” he said. “When I started, it was one half the minimum wage.” He added that booksellers are in a unique position to “serve the aspirants of the world, instead of just those who have arrived.”

As for the various threats to the industry, Riggio was sanguine, an optimism perhaps born out of having weathered waves of threats to the industry, starting with television, then movies, then cable television, then the internet and e-books, “which would be our industry’s final blow.” But, he noted, something else happened: “Readers began to yearn again for the joys of reading physical books, and perhaps more importantly, the ownership of a real library. In short, they realized the physicality of a book is content in itself.”

While the market for physical books is showing signs of growth, Riggio said “we should keep the cork in the Champagne for now.” Citing, for example, the unexpected boom in audiobook sales, Riggio said booksellers need to be vigilant about the power of technology, “which is always in its infancy,” to disrupt the profession and to be open to change with the times.

“I can say for certain that the bookselling industry is not going away, but no one can predict how big the industry will be, and for whom and in what forms,” he said, ending with: “what is clear as a bell to me is that the size, shape, and location of tomorrow’s bookstores has yet to be determined.”