A new Barnes & Noble opens in Kirkland, showing how the bookstore chain is changing

From the Seattle Times:

The opening of a new bookstore is always an act of optimism: a determined belief that there continue to be many people who prefer to pick out books from an actual shelf or table, and buy them while exchanging pleasantries or book recommendations with an actual person. But when the new bookstore is a Barnes & Noble, a national chain that has shuttered three stores in the Seattle area in recent years, it’s not just optimism, but a vast reset, one that takes its principles from small, independent bookstores.

Barnes & Noble, whose newest branch formally opens Wednesday at The Village at Totem Lake in Kirkland, is no indie; it’s owned, since 2019, by the same British private equity firm that owns the U.K. bookstore chain Waterstones. But its current CEO, James Daunt, got his start running his own bookshop (he still owns Daunt Books in London). Since taking the reins at Barnes & Noble nearly two years ago, his goal has been to transform the company by giving local staff more control over the stores. It’s been a successful strategy for the Waterstones chain, over which Daunt also presides, and he’s encouraged by its early results in the U.S. stores.

“What I think we should be able to do at Barnes & Noble is use the resources and capacities of a large bookstore, but effectively harness them within a culture which is much more independently minded,” he said in a telephone interview from New York this week. This means, he explained, that bookstore managers take their cue from their customers in choosing what to stock, and have much more leeway in how to display it.

Giving this freedom to the stores — a process that began last year, when many stores that were closed during the pandemic used the time to reorganize the stock — has been good for business, Daunt said. During his tenure, he said that the Barnes & Noble send-back rate to publishers — the bookstore business is structured on returning books that don’t sell — has gone from about 25% to 10-12% percent. “We’ll keep on driving it down,” he said. “Waterstones has been about 3%. Which I think is about the level a bookstore should be.”

And why open again in the Seattle area, where the West Seattle, Issaquah and downtown Barnes & Noble stores so recently shut down? “It’s a very good area for communities that read and are engaged and well-educated — all the things that one would expect to support a successful bookstore,” he said. The previous closures were largely due to real estate issues — leases, redevelopment — “and of course the stores were getting quite old,” he said. “If you’re going to keep yourself as a vibrant retailer, you have to open (new stores) because you’re always going to be closing, frankly.”

. . . .

It’s been a rocky few decades for Barnes & Noble, whose business model has struggled since the arrival of Amazon in the 1990s. Barnes & Noble currently has 607 stores (including the Kirkland one), with three more planned to open this summer. That’s down from its peak of 1,046 stores in 1996 (though most of those stores were of a “small footprint” format that have since been phased out).

At the shiny new Totem Lake store, located between a bustling Whole Foods and an equally busy Trader Joe’s, manager Dave Rossiter, a 17-year Barnes & Noble employee who previously managed the Issaquah store, led a walk-through of the layout early this week. Its 8,200 square feet hold not straight-line rows of shelves, but room-like nooks for each genre. Within those nooks are thousands of books, a small selection of DVDs, puzzles and gift items, and a cafe.

. . . .

Rossiter said the store currently employs about 22 people, most of them part-time. While he looked for retail experience in hiring, he said his first interview question was always some variant of “tell me why you are passionate about reading.” You can see that passion in the store: dozens of handwritten cards dot the shelves, with enthusiastic recommendations from booksellers. (One charmingly — and accurately — refers to an edition of William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” as “the original emo.”) It’s a sight that’s typical at an indie bookstore, but wouldn’t have been seen at an old-style Barnes & Noble — part of Daunt’s goal to create “bookstores with a genuine local personality.”

While Daunt acknowledged that many of these staff positions would be at or close to minimum wage, he said the company is in the process of changing its employment structure for its stores. Formerly, a Barnes & Noble store would have a number of minimum-wage workers, then a large step up in pay for the few who became managers or assistant managers. The new structure adds rungs on the ladder — senior bookseller, lead bookseller, expert bookseller — with higher pay at each step, to allow “young people to embark on and sustain careers in bookselling,” he said. This would mean, in all likelihood, fewer employees per store, but more of them full-time and better-paid.

. . . .

The reverberations of a new, sizable chain bookstore are felt not only by potential customers, but by local booksellers, particularly the few currently on the Eastside. Daunt says he makes a point of not opening new Barnes & Noble stores in neighborhoods already served by independent stores — “I celebrate the opening of independents as much as I do our stores, and we would never go into direct competition,” he said. But while no local indies are in the immediate vicinity of the Totem Lake location, two are a short distance away: BookTree in Kirkland and Brick & Mortar Books in Redmond, about 4 and 5 miles away, respectively.

“I am hoping of course that the impact on BookTree’s sales will be minimal but there’s really no way of knowing,” owner Chris Jarmick said. “I am a little worried that we might not see as many first-time customers looking for a bookstore, and that could impact how many new loyal customers we add to our BookTree family. … It’s important people are aware how fragile a small business truly is and will continue to support BookTree.”

Dan Ullom, an owner of Brick & Mortar, expressed optimism. “Another bookstore opening in the region is a positive, a rising tide that elevates all ships,” he said. “Our hope is that their opening inspires more people to become readers and inspires current readers to read more.”

Link to the rest at the Seattle Times

Perhaps PG was in a cynical mood, but there seemed to be a lot of happy talk and not much journalistic skepticism in the OP. It’s great to add more minimum wage jobs to Kirkland, a city where, per Zillow, the average home price is $934,710.00.

Per DollarTimes, to afford a house that costs $930,000 with a down payment of $186,000, you’d need to earn $138,769 per year before tax. The monthly mortgage payment would be $3,238.

“Daunt acknowledged that many of these staff positions would be at or close to minimum wage”.

The state of Washington has a state minimum wage of $13.69 per hour, well above the federal minimum wage. Assuming that, unlike many bookstore employees who are only part time, let’s assume that Mr. Daunt’s new Kirkland store pays a full-time employee the Washington minimum hourly wage.

Per the Washington State Tax Calculator, this results in a semi-monthly take-home pay of $984 or a monthly take-home pay of $1968 (It’s common to calculate a month’s pay based on four 40-hour work-weeks, but, as everybody knows, every month but February has a few additional days beyond 28.)

This would result in a total annual take-home pay of $23,616 for a minimum-wage employee at Barnes & Noble’s Kirkland store.

One might conclude that nobody who starts working at this new Barnes & Noble store when it opens will ever be able to afford to buy a home in Kirkland absent a spouse/partner who earns way, way more than Barnes & Noble pays or wealthy close relatives who die and leave a substantial inheritance.

Per glassdoor.com, a Barnes & Noble store manager (only one of these per store and they had to spend several years working their way up) earns an average base pay of $73,528 plus an average bonus of $6,798 for a total annual income of $80,326, still not nearly enough to buy a house in Kirkland.

PG is not an expert on Kirkland, but understands it’s a pleasant Seattle suburb, but doesn’t recall ever hearing it included in a description of up-scale suburbs. He’s happy to be corrected in any misconceptions he has about Kirkland by those with more knowledge than he has.

6 thoughts on “A new Barnes & Noble opens in Kirkland, showing how the bookstore chain is changing”

  1. Kirkland has the second highest household income of all cities in Washington State per the census bureau. Microsoft is either there or adjacent. Nearby Bellevue has the highest household income. Lots of tech companies in that area. I would assume employees of B&N will either live further out or be living with others and sharing costs. I did some rough numbers and someone on minimum wage might make it renting an apartment with at least one other person…if they worked a full forty hours a week. House prices in the Seattle/Bellevue area are crazy and are hard to justify by income levels. That $934,000 will get you a decent, but not upscale house around here. Once you are thirty or more minutes out, house prices fall considerably. Nonetheless, I doubt anyone around here has ever (in the last fifty years) been able to afford a house if they earn minimum wage.

    • One problem for B&N employees in Kirkland is that as tbe OP blythely points out, most of them are part-timers.
      “Rossiter said the store currently employs about 22 people, most of them part-time.”
      He might even be the only full timer, going by Daunt’s practices in the UK.

      So the minimum wage might seem marginal but it isn’t even close when it applies to less than 30 hours (to escape mandatory health care costs).

      The real question is how good is the public transit to Kirkland and how much of a commute the job requires.

      • Exactly. I suppose that students or others who like books and don’t require the job to provide their main income may find the jobs attractive. The better potential workers will gravitate to Starbucks or similar employers who do provide medical and better wages. No one is forcing anyone to work at B&N, and if B&N can find employees fine. Hopefully that pool of candidates shrinks as wages finally catch up after lagging most other economic measures for years.

    • Sammamish’s net-living-unit income is higher than Kirkland’s; Bellevue was not statistically different from Kirkland as of 2019. But Sammamish is just across Bellevue from Kirkland. (I suppose it could be worse; it could be Woodinville.) I grew up around here, in Newcastle-before-it-was-Newcastle (speaking of which, “Sammamish” wasn’t incorported then, either)… and minimum wage couldn’t have supported even a trailer home even in Kennydale or the Renton Highlands as far back as the 1970s. The Seattle area’s equivalent of overt redlining since the 1960s has been “children living in multifamily housing.”

      That said, somewhat sarcastically, remember that the house brand at Costco is “Kirkland”…

  2. Being on the shores of Lake Washington with a view of downtown Seattle across the water, Kirkland WA is very much an upscale suburb. Much of it has been extensively redeveloped into “mixed use” including the area of the new B&N which was the site of a 60’s era indoor mall that was razed for redevelopment. You’re quite correct about Kirkland becoming unaffordable for employees of B&N and other jobs that don’t pay “tech” wages. Most houses that come on the market in Kirkland especially older houses are quickly snapped up for flipping or being razed and replaced with a new house.

  3. My office was in Kirkland for five or ten years. It’s a plush Microsoft-Boeing bedroom community on the I-405 eastside corridor that connects Boeing’s Renton and Everett campuses. Microsoft grew out of the concentration of tech workers that clustered around 405. I-520 connects the Microsoft Redmond campus to Seattle and the I-405 corridor. My guess is that the Kirkland B&N will be staffed by significant others and children of east side tech workers who will appreciate the literate, civil bookstore surroundings, not lower income folk commuting in.

    The pandemic has changed a lot of things and development always churns, but in my day in Kirkland, Totem Lake was down scale, Trader Joe’s was the only draw for us, not nearly as posh as Bell Square and the best food was in downtown Kirkland.

    There are at two other healthy B&Ns on the eastside, so I’m a little surprised at a third opening. There are a lot of literate households in the area, but they are highly mobile. A trip to Elliot Bay Books in Seattle or Third Place Books in Kenmore is not a big deal on the eastside, so a Kirkland B&N has both internal and external competition. But I still think it could succeed.

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