In 2018, it seemed like the days of the United States’ last major bookstore chain were numbered. A decade of falling sales, brutal layoffs, 150 store closures, six chief executives, and a $1 billion loss on its Nook e-reader had left Barnes & Noble in the throes of an identity crisis. So acute was its struggle that one New York Times critic imagined a sequel to the 1998 romantic comedy You’ve Got Mailin which Tom Hanks—the big-box bookstore owner who crushes Meg Ryan’s independent book shop—is now the David to Amazon’s Goliath.
But here’s a better plot twist: What if Meg Ryan got tapped to save the big chain, and teach Hanks what people really want from their bookstore?
That’s the mission that Elliot Advisors, the hedge fund that purchased B&N for $638 million in June, has handed to freshly appointed CEO James Daunt. A 55-year-old Englishman, Daunt has spent nearly three decades in the bookselling business. For most of that time, he was exclusively Team Indie, overseeing an idyllic, boutique book-buying experience as the founder of Daunt Books, which has six locations in well-heeled neighborhoods in London.