N.Y. Times columnist issues call to ‘save’ Barnes & Noble

The public chain’s founder and his family retain large stakes — but shouldn’t someone push to save independent family-owned stores instead?

By Barbara Spector

A May 7 article by New York Times Opinion columnist David Leonhardt titled ‘Save Barnes & Noble!’ has garnered attention on Twitter. Some users of the social-media platform agreed with Leonhardt that the government has been too lenient on Amazon, whose low book prices have eaten into Barnes & Noble’s profits. Others argued that the retailers who really need public support are the small, independent booksellers — many of them family-owned — and not giant nationwide chains.

Barnes & Noble, a public company since 1993, started out as a family business. Leonard Riggio, the founder and chairman, began with one college bookstore in 1965 and in the mid-’70s started buying up bookstore chains. Riggio, 76, remains Barnes & Noble’s largest individual shareholder and now holds about 19.3% of the common stock.

Leonard’s younger brother, Stephen Riggio, worked alongside him. He started in 1974, working in the buying and marketing departments, and rose to CEO, a position he held from 2002 until 2010, when he became vice chairman in a move that was described in the press as being kicked upstairs. He no longer serves on Barnes & Noble’s board.

Activist investor Ron Burkle, who blamed the founding family for the drop in the company’s share price, staged an unsuccessful proxy battle in 2010, noting in his proxy statement that “A majority of the current Board has a personal or business relationship with Leonard Riggio” and “The Company has engaged in numerous related party transactions with the Riggio family worth billions of dollars.”

Compare this history with that of Joseph Fox Bookshop, profiled by Family Business Magazine in 2001 (subscription required). The Fox family’s small store, known for its excellent customer service, was founded in Philadelphia in 1951 and still operates under the leadership of second-generation owner Michael Fox — around the corner from a Barnes & Noble store.

Which book retailer has been run more carefully and deserves the public’s advocacy in this era of disruption? Let the readers decide.