”It’s a temple for books,” Barnes & Noble chairman Leonard Riggio said at the recent opening of Barnes & Noble Lincoln Triangle, the company’s mammoth, 60,000-square-foot superstore located across the street from Lincoln Center in New York City. With a gala opening that included a book signing by jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and complimentary cakes and coffee in the giant newsstand-café, the five-story emporium for browsers crowned a groundbreaking year in the book industry: By the end of January, Barnes & Noble will have opened 95 superstores in just the last year, bringing the company’s nationwide superstore total to 350.
That’s a lot of cappuccino. And a lot of books: The superstores’ selection ranges from a typical 150,000 titles to Lincoln Center’s 200,000. Barnes & Noble isn’t the only chain that’s expanding. Borders, its longtime rival, plans to launch its first New York superstore next fall — one of about 40 new superstores the company will open in 1996. All this in a country where people supposedly don’t read much anymore.
”We’re part of an amazing cultural and retailing phenomenon,” says Barnes & Noble executive vice president Stephen Riggio, the chairman’s younger brother. Rather than causing a bookstore glut, he argues, superstores have ”expanded the marketplace” by attracting customers who had never before frequented bookstores. These new customers are finding that the reader-friendly environments offer not only discounted hardcover best-sellers but literary and university press titles as well. Even so, the invasion of the superstores has received some mixed reviews. There are complaints, not surprisingly, from independent bookstore owners, many of whom claim that the growth of the chains has come at their expense. ”I don’t think our marketplace will be able to handle the amount of square footage that is not only here, but that is due to come in,” says Joyce Meskis, owner of Denver’s Tattered Cover Book Store.
The independents aren’t the only ones concerned about the superstore phenomenon: Many publishers, having reaped hefty profits from the boom, now wonder how long the party will last. ”There could be trouble ahead,” says Nick Weir-Williams, director of Northwestern University Press, which distributes literary fiction for several small presses. Weir-Williams worries that once all the hoopla dies down, the reading public still won’t be large enough to sustain the superstores — and by that time even more independents will have been wiped out. ”It’s a fantastic environment, but are all these customers buying books they wouldn’t have bought before?” he asks. ”I hope Barnes & Noble is right about the marketplace expanding. We all have a great deal at stake here.”