By Natalie Bozimowski
At 9:30 AM on Wed., May 30 the chairman and founder of Barnes & Noble, Len Riggio, opened the 2018 BookExpo America at the Jacob K. Javits Center in Manhattan. It was the massive annual literary convention's first-ever opening keynote, and every seat was filled. An audience gathered wherever there was floor space to hear what this bookseller mogul had to say about brick-and-mortar business in the age of digital retail.
By creating almost 10,000 stores, employing nearly 100,000 people, and more than 6.7 billion books, Riggio has played and continues to play a major role in the promotion of publishers and printed books through his Barnes & Noble stores. Riggio spent the majority of his time at the podium asserting the importance of bookstores and the gallantry of those who own them. “We are the showrooms of the publishing industry,” he declared, including independent bookstores in the cavalry.
The American businessman and entrepreneur emphasised the common ground that binds all BookExpo attendees: a shared passion of literature. Riggio talked about beginning his career in book retail in the NYU bookstore in 1958. His own stores occupy many university campuses today, bringing his career full circle. His desire to sell books ripened at the age of 17 after he was given a copy of Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse, “which opened [his] eyes once and for all to the joys of reading.”
Riggio dedicated much of his keynote to enforcing the idea that having bookstores – no matter the scale – should be the primary goal of the industry. When discussing Borders, a past competitor that went out of business in 2011, Riggio insisted that the loss of the major book retailer was by no means a victory for Barnes & Noble. “The closing of Borders was a net loss to our industry, and not a cause of celebration. Again, we need more bookstores, not less,” Riggio said.
The tone quickly shifted from somber to hopeful when Riggio declared: “I believe that you can say with certainty that the bookselling industry is not going away any more than reading books will be a thing of the past.” He highlighted, enthusiastically, the lively demand for physical copies of books despite a thriving culture of e-readers and audiobooks. “Little by little books are making a comeback,” he proclaimed.
For Riggio the continued existence and success of physical books and the bricks-and-mortar stores that sells them depends on booksellers adapting and uniting en masse.
"The degree to which we grow and prosper will depend on how liberal we all are," he said. "And the degree to which we can create change."