Poets & Writers wrapped up its 50th anniversary in 2020 by announcing a $250,000 contribution from Barnes & Noble founder—and longtime P&W supporter—Len Riggio. The donation from Riggio and his wife, Louise, will be used for new initiatives to extend the organization’s support of Black and marginalized writers.
“We are deeply grateful to Len and Louise for their generous gift, which will allow us to develop new programming and reach more writers,” said Melissa Ford Gradel, Poets & Writers’ new executive director, in a statement. (Gradel succeeded longtime P&W ED Elliot Figman this month.) “Len has been a strong supporter of Poets & Writers from early on. He chaired our very first annual dinner in 1990, which inspired broad support from the publishing community that helped Poets & Writers grow.”
During his time overseeing B&N, Riggio was active in various charitable and political organizations. Riggio told PW he wanted to make news of the donation public to encourage others to step up to back the work of P&W, especially its efforts to address the growing racial divide in the country. “We hope that our gift can provide a beacon of hope in our increasingly divided society and increase the number of writers Poets & Writers reaches and supports,” Riggio said.
Riggio retired from B&N in August of 2019 following the purchase of the country’s largest bricks-and-mortar by Elliot Advisors. Riggio said that while he would “love to say I don’t miss it,” he told PW he does miss certain aspects of his time running B&N. “I don’t miss being a business person, I had enough of that. But I do miss the bookselling part, helping to find books to recommend to customers,” he said. It was a privilege to head a company full of “good people” who loved books, Riggio added.
Riggio has no ongoing relationship with B&N. “James is running it,” Riggio said, referring to B&N CEO James Daunt. “I am rooting for them 100%. I think he has done a terrific job under tough circumstances. He is getting things done.”
While the pandemic has put pressure on physical retailers of all kinds, Riggio said he believes “retailing has many good years ahead,” but acknowledged they need to attract more customers to stores. To do that, retailing “needs to be more of an experience,” Riggio said, adding that bookstores, and booksellers, are well suited to provide an enjoyable experience. He noted that, when B&N opened its first superstores, stores were full of people browsing, reading magazines and discussing books. Under Daunt, B&N has opened a number of new stores that Riggio believes makes B&N a more inviting place, albeit with a smaller footprint.
Through B&N, Barnes & Noble College, and GameStop, Riggio estimated he was responsible for opening 10,000 stores over the course of his career. During his leadership of B&N, Riggio was occasionally accused of opening stores to drive indie bookstores out of business—something he says is completely untrue. “I never opened a store to drive an indie out. I did it to sell books,” he said. “I’d like to see more bookstores open. Anytime a bookstore opens, it is a good thing, no matter who owns it.”