Barnes & Noble CEO James Daunt began his tenure with a baptism by fire. He took over the role in September and made some tweaks to B&N’s holiday merchandising and a few personnel changes. He was expecting to make more extensive changes early this year. But then Covid-19 forced B&N to close all but 24 stores to in-person shopping.

By early July, all but one store had been reopened, Daunt told PW. The company is following all local mandates, including limiting the number of customers in each store at a given time, establishing social distancing protocols, and creating designated areas where customers can leave books they have touched but decided not to buy (those books are then sanitized before being returned to shelves).

It is Daunt’s belief that bookstores are fairly well constructed to operate in a coronavirus environment, since many, especially B&N outlets, are relatively large and can accommodate social distancing. He added, however, that B&N is being cautious and has adopted a go-slow approach to opening its cafés. “We are doing what we are told,” he said.

After Daunt was forced to close the majority of B&N’s stores, he decided to redesign 350 of them—a process that he had thought would take up to two years but that took about seven weeks with no foot traffic. He gave great credit to the booksellers who handled the shifts. “Every piece of furniture had to be moved,” he said. “All the shelves were moved.” The new look, he added, “is a substantial and dramatic change” that involved not only making the stores brighter but also reorganizing their book categories and improving the selection.

Daunt believes the effort shows a new spirit among B&N’s booksellers. He acknowledged that the business is in a difficult period but said that can bring out the best in people. Moreover, he gets a sense that booksellers believe they are “in a fight that can be won. They are building a great bookstore.”

From day one, Daunt has put his faith in booksellers’ ability to turn around B&N’s fortunes. That philosophy played a role in his decision to reorganize the company’s buying efforts—a move that led to the layoff of many longtime buyers, such as literary fiction buyer Sessalee Hensley. Daunt said buyers will now buy across different categories. “How many buyers do independent bookstores have?” he asked. He sees the role of corporate buyers as acquiring enough copies to establish a book in stores. After that, it will be up to store managers to repolish stock as necessary. He believes stores have been filled with books that “no one wants to buy,” which has made it harder for customers to find the books they want. He knows the change is a big one, but he said it is necessary to improve sell-through and lower returns, which are major objectives for him.

Though many early spring titles sat in closed stores, Daunt doesn’t anticipate massive returns from B&N. He said they should be lower than last year but “not as low as I want them to be,” noting, “Returns are a function of bad buying and bad bookselling.”

Reorganizing the buying department was just one part of a downsizing effort that has reduced corporate staff by about half since Elliott Advisors acquired B&N from Len Riggio last year. Daunt called the cuts painful but necessary, as B&N operates in a very uncertain environment. “We’ve taken a lot of costs out of the business,” he said.

Sales have slowly risen each week from the depths they reached in April, but Daunt admitted that they had almost nowhere to go but up. Online sales have shown steady gains, which he attributed in part to an improved website. “We’re a bookseller,” he said. “We should be able to offer better recommendations than, ‘If you like this you’ll like that.’ ”

E-book sales have seen a “huge boost” since the pandemic hit, Daunt said, noting that the Nook app has gained some traction. In terms of store sales, business has improved the most at suburban and rural stores, and the slowest growth has been in cities—a trend he attributed to few workers in cities returning to offices. And though B&N lost sales to Walmart and other mass merchandisers when its stores were closed, customers are returning. “People appreciate bookstores and the selection we offer,” he added. “Our average ticket is way up over the last few weeks.”

The pandemic has not stopped B&N from opening two new stores—one in Shaumburg, Ill., and another in Sarasota, Fla. A third is set to open in Rockville, Md., in August. As with the redesigned stores, the layout of the new outlets is intended to make them brighter and allow for a better selection of titles, including improved backlist offerings. Daunt doesn’t see any mass store closings on the horizon, though, he noted, “we may close the odd store because of rents or a bad location.”

Given the uncertainty caused by the pandemic, Daunt is cautious about the fall and holiday outlook. His priority is to keep B&N’s employees and customers safe. “I think we have a good path forward, but these are challenging economic times,” he said. No major holiday promotional campaigns are currently in the works, he added, explaining that the company needs to watch costs.

But all is not doom and gloom, Daunt assured. A number of new titles are bringing customers back, and the fall lists contain several major titles delayed from earlier in the year. Though he doesn’t expect total annual sales to reach last year’s level—they are currently down about 20% compared to 2019—they won’t be down as much as it looked like they would be early in the spring.