James Daunt, the British businessman who is bringing bookstores up to date


James Daunt, the boss of Barnes & Noble, in the Waterstones bookstore in Piccadilly, London, on September 20, 2022.

We have the literary re-entry, they call it holiday season. In France as in Anglo-Saxon countries, autumn is a crucial moment for the book industry, supposed to end in apotheosis – and in bookstores – with Christmas presents. In 2020, a study by the NPD BookScan (the reference institute for monitoring book sales in the United States) confirmed this. : 25% of book purchases for the year are made in November and December. No question, therefore, of missing out, for bookstores, threatened for years by competition from the online sales giant Amazon.

In the United States, 50% of book sales are now made via the Internet, according to the American Booksellers Association. In England, and for three years in the United States, a man seems to have found the martingale to restore their luster to physical bookstores in the face of the conveniences of online commerce. James Daunt, 58, is “The Man Who Saved Waterstones”, trumpeted in 2014 the British daily Evening Standard. In 2011, he took over the general management of this chain of English bookstores, which has now returned to profit. Since 2019, he has also been at the helm of the American group Barnes & Noble, where he is about to reproduce the same feat.

“Customers go to bookstores for the experience, to be in contact with other readers, to see and touch the books, but also to talk to booksellers and seek their advice. »James Daunt

When we meet him one September morning in the basement café of London’s biggest Waterstones (and Europe’s biggest bookshop), a stone’s throw from Piccadilly Circus, James Daunt is rather dashing. Barely returned from New York, he says he got used to jet lag: married and the father of two almost adult daughters, he has been spending one week a month across the Atlantic for three years. “He has created a cohort of independent bookstores that have the commercial firepower of a chain”, summarized in New York Times, in 2019, Tom Weldon, the boss of publishing giant Penguin Random House in the UK.

James Daunt has himself been an independent bookseller for more than thirty years: after a brief start in finance, he created Daunt Books in 1990, which now has nine stores across England. It is on the strength of this success that, from 2011, he applied his recipes to the Waterstones chain. His creed? “When bookstores do their job well, people go there. » “Do the job well, he continues, it’s about creating a pleasant store, where people want to be. Customers go to bookstores for the experience, to be in contact with other readers, to see and touch the books, but also to talk to booksellers and seek their advice. » So many things that Amazon cannot offer.

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