"The baron of books" (Cover Story, June 29) about Barnes & Noble Chief Executive Leonard S. Riggio underscores an important issue that applies to many industries, not just bookselling. Current American thought equates the success of capitalism with the success of democracy. This thinking leads many to ignore the social consequences of '90s-style megabusiness.
True democracy depends on even the smallest voices being heard. While it's true that industry consolidations may lead to lower prices and greater consumer choice in the short run, these positive effects are not guaranteed to last. The lessons that lead us to reject centralized government apply equally to societal domination by a few large "private" institutions. America's challenge during the next millennium will be to reap the positive economic benefits of emerging business models while preserving the spirit of individual liberty and choice that is the hallmark of a true democracy.
Hans M. Eckardt
Newport Beach, Calif.
I was saddened to see such unambiguous adulation. "He made bookstores fun"? In many cases, my friends and I have always found independent bookstores with selection, service, and character much more "fun" than Riggio's cookie-cutter boxes. While I concede that some Barnes & Nobles carry a larger selection than some independents, I do not concede that Riggio serves readers better than an independent bookstore. The booksellers at my favorite independent bookstores have talked with me about books for years. I trust them.
That the industry has not seen much increase in sales over the past 10 years tells me that Barnes & Noble, contrary to Riggio's claims, is not bringing books to the masses. If Barnes & Noble is bringing more books to the masses, why have so many publishers cut back their midlists lately?
But the real hypocrisy in Riggio's claims is shown best by looking at where he opens stores. In Massachusetts, Barnes & Noble popped up in the affluent towns of Brookline, Chestnut Hill, and Cambridge, where bookstores abound. Strangely, Riggio overlooked the Boston neighborhoods of Dorchester and Roxbury, which need both bookstores and a boost to the economy. Riggio did this [because] the market already existed. He would have had to work a little harder to "bring books to the masses" in less wealthy neighborhoods.
The saddest thing is Riggio's comment: "I don't shed a tear for the little guy." It is the little guy who often makes the most worthwhile contribution to the world of literature. To illustrate: In New Haven there is a wonderful independent shop, The Foundry Bookstore; its owner-proprietor, Henry Berliner, watches out for quality literature. Back when I lived in New Haven, I would walk into The Foundry, and Henry would greet me with his latest discovery. My whole household thrived on what we called "Henry recommendations."
Now, I live in Phoenix, where there are no general independent bookstores--just megastores like Barnes & Noble and Borders. They are very cold places indeed.
Louis H. Silverstein
Barnes & Noble deserves to succeed because it quietly reaches out to help children and families in communities across the country. It has led the charge on behalf of two community-based organizations that are daily changing people's lives.
Six years ago, I co-founded First Book, a nonprofit organization that provides new books to disadvanteged children. In our earliest days, Barnes & Noble joined the effort and has been at our side at every stage. From Len Riggio to Tom Tolworthy, the president of Barnes & Noble Bookstores, to the sales staff of every store, Barnes & Noble has been a committed corporate partner and it has never asked for credit. Barnes & Noble organizes book drives, inspires its employees to undertake substantial roles in community efforts, and uses its stores to host book parties for the hardest to reach children in the nation. With the help of Len Riggio, we have provided new books to hundreds of thousands of children and brought the magic of reading to families who have no books in their homes.
Peter F. Gold, Chairman
I enjoyed your article focusing on Len Riggio's strategies. I wanted to express my distaste for the American Booksellers Assn. and other such organizations that band together to fight various market giants. I enjoy the Barnes & Noble stores, with their vast selection and discount prices, and believe the ABA should thank Riggio for attracting so many buyers who would not otherwise buy from a small, musty bookstore that carries maybe 1,000 books. Instead, they fight him because they are envious of his profits and camouflage their spite with claims of Riggio being so profit-driven that lesser-known titles would never survive in his stores.
No question about it. Small, independent bookstores struggle to compete against large chains. But is it not the same in all walks of business? As co-editors, co-authors, and publisher of six recent short-run books, all written by kindergarten to 12th grade public school teachers and student-teachers, we can testify that Barnes & Noble was willing to display and sell them while the small independents refused to even take a cursory look at them. Barnes & Noble does carry the works of small, nonmainstream presses.
Carlos A. Bonilla, President
International Consulting Associations Inc.