Once a book selling giant, Barnes & Noble sold to hedge fund

Associated Press
A Barnes and Noble Booksellers store in Pittsburgh.

Barnes & Noble is being acquired by a hedge fund for $476 million and will be taken private.

The national chain that many blamed for the demise of independent bookstores has been ravaged by Amazon.com and other online sellers, but remains a critical outlet for publishers.

On Friday, it was acquired by Elliott Management and, in a twist, could become a national chain with a business model more akin to that of a local bookstore.

Elliott bought Waterstones one year ago, a national U.K. book chain that has successfully navigated through the online/e-reader revolution by returning a lot of autonomy to the managers of its nearly 300 stores, who can select books that they believe local readers want.

Leonard Riggio acquired the century old Barnes & Noble in the 1970s, including its flagship Manhattan store, in the 1970s. He pursued aggressive expansion throughout the 1980s and established Barnes & Noble as a national phenomenon with the acquisition of B. Dalton Bookseller and its 797 locations in 1987. It became the nation’s second-largest bookseller and began selling books online in partnership with IBM and Sears.

The company continued to gobble up other larger booksellers like Doubleday Book Shops and also BookStop, which ran discount superstores in Texas.

By 1993, Barnes & Noble was a publicly traded company that was upending the publishing industry.

The company tried to ride the digital transformation of books, rolling out its own e-reader, the Nook, in 2009 and offering more than a million books on its website.

But Amazon.com, which began as an online market place for books, was relentless and its Kindle e-reader is dominant today. The company has cut into sales of both Barnes & Noble and independent book sellers alike.

Last year, Riggio was brought on stage by Oren Teicher for BookExpo 2018 in New York City.

Teicher heads the American Booksellers Association, the group representing independent book shops, and a bitter rival of Barnes & Noble.

“Today, we stand together in common cause to promote and support bricks-and-mortar bookstores,” said Teicher. “I’ve been quoted as saying that it’s in the long-term interest of the overall book business that Barnes & Noble not just survive but grow and prosper.”

But Barnes & Noble has suffered.

With about 630 retail stores in the U.S. as of last year, it is smaller than when it acquired of B. Dalton Bookseller in the late 1980s. Its revenue peaked in 2012, and it has fallen every year since.

It is not known if Barnes & Noble will adopt the Waterstones strategy of operating more like a large conglomerate of independent bookstores, but the combined company increases its footprint.

“Our investment in Barnes & Noble, following our investment last year in Waterstones, demonstrates our conviction that readers continue to value the experience of a great bookstore,” said Paul Best, portfolio manager and head of European private equity at Elliott.

Waterstones CEO James Daunt will become the CEO at Barnes & Noble as well.

“Physical bookstores the world over face fearsome challenges from online and digital, he said in a prepared statement. “We meet these with investment and with all the more confidence for being able to draw on the unrivalled bookselling skills of these two great companies.”

Elliott will pay $6.50 for each share of Barnes & Noble, an approximately 9% percent premium to the company’s Thursday closing stock price

The sale, valued at about $683 million including debt, is targeted to close in the third quarter if approved by regulators and shareholders.

Riggio, who is still chairman at Barnes & Noble, said in a prepared statement that he will help Daunt however he can.

“Having been the leader of Barnes & Noble for 54 years, I have had the privilege of working with the very best people in all the world of bookselling, including our great store managers and booksellers, who work in our stores,” Riggio said.