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Jim McDermottJanuary 19, 2023
Exterior of a Barnes & Noble (Wikimedia)

After years of contraction, missteps and premature obituaries, Barnes & Noble is unexpectedly thriving. The company just announced that it will be opening 30 new stores, some in locations that had previously been owned and operated by Amazon.

Everything about this story is weird. Not only is a big-box store somehow having success against an online juggernaut; we’re rooting for it despite the fact that for years it was the juggernaut destroying independent booksellers and using many of the same techniques Amazon now uses against it—larger selection, deeper discounts.

Those very same independent booksellers that Barnes & Noble once threatened to destroy are rooting for it, too. In April, Michael Barnard, the owner of the independent bookstore Rakestraw Books in Danville, Calif., told The New York Times that he has at times faced hard competition from big-box stores, including Barnes & Noble. But, he went on, “they’re the other major part of the industry that is committed to print and to in-person book-selling, and I do think they share some of our challenges.”

After years of contraction, missteps and premature obituaries, Barnes & Noble is unexpectedly thriving.

In a recent issue of his newsletter “The Honest Broker,” the culture critic Ted Gioia dug into the resurgence of Barnes & Noble. As he sees it, a lot of their success comes down to Barnes & Noble actually becoming an independent bookseller in the way that it thinks about itself. “The key element uniting all of [the company’s efforts],” Mr. Gioia writes, “is putting books and readers first, and everything else second.” Put simply, Mr. Gioia says, if you really want to sell books, you need to love them and the people who do.

While the Catholic Church and a bookseller may not seem to have a lot in common, some of the lessons Mr. Gioia draws from Barnes & Noble seem highly apropos of a church that finds itself also struggling with drops in attendance (especially among the young) and morale.

Know what you have to offer

Barnes & Noble’s change of fortune began with one key move: It hired as C.E.O. a man who had been an independent bookseller himself. James Daunt started in the book business with his own little store, which he wanted to be a “showplace for books,” says Mr. Gioia. The attitude he brought out of that experience into running the British chain Waterstones and now Barnes & Noble gave him a completely different take on the industry. Where other booksellers were constantly competing against each other for who could offer the biggest discounts, Mr. Daunt refused to offer any at all. He refused any promotional money from publishers, either, because he did not want external agents deciding what went in his windows or how many copies he had to buy.

“Daunt wanted to put the best books in the window,” Mr. Gioia writes. “He wanted to display the most exciting books by the front door.” Why? Because his belief is that the primary vocation of a bookstore is to be a place that celebrates good books and provides a space where others who love books can, too.

When it comes to the church, there are many different interpretations of our mission: the sharing of the truth of Jesus Christ; the offering of moral guidance; the experience of God’s presence and love. Each of these missions is an important aspect of what it is to be church. But which is the primary?

The church came about as a result of people’s experience with Jesus; our theology, ethics and ecclesiology all emerge from our reflections on that experience.

I would propose that the central event or idea of the church from which everything else emerges is the encounter with Jesus. The church came about as a result of people’s experience with Jesus; our theology, ethics and ecclesiology all emerge from our reflections on that experience. The church’s primary purpose, therefore, is to enable its people to continue to have that experience.

It’s similar to Mr. Daunt’s ideas about bookstores. As a bookstore is a place that celebrates books and provides a space for others who do as well, a parish or a diocese might be understood as a place that celebrates God’s love for us and provides spaces where others can know and love God, too.

If we were to accept this as our primary mission, what activities or aspects of church and diocesan life would rise to the surface as most important? Certainly liturgy, education and service activities would be among them, as they are ways in which God is known, celebrated and shared. What other aspects of our activity as church might need to be prioritized less, or recalibrated to be more celebratory and experiential? What would be putting on our “front shelves,” in our “store windows”?

Hire the right people, and then let them run

One’s mission dictates one’s staff, too. For years, Barnes & Noble hired managers who tried to play the game against Amazon—bigger discounts, more promotions. It didn’t work. Many of them were no doubt very competent and creative people, but they were not the right people for that mission.

What other aspects of our activity as church might need to be prioritized less, or recalibrated to be more celebratory and experiential? What would be putting in our “store windows”?

If we see the church as primarily a place of celebration and experience of the Lord, what sort of people should we be looking for as parish and diocesan administrators, clergy, teachers, and hired and volunteer staff? Maybe we’re looking for people whose main qualifications are their own spiritual experiences or their own spirits. Are they hopeful? Do they have energy and enthusiasm? Are they creative or artistic? Do they have training in helping other people to hear or see God around them? Are they experienced in listening for the movements of God in people’s lives? Are they community builders?

Mr. Gioia notes that Mr. Daunt’s model of governance is also very decentralized. Once he has the people he needs, he lets them oversee their individual stores however they see fit. “Staff are now in control of their own shops,” he told Mr. Gioia. “Hopefully they’re enjoying their work more. They’re creating something very different in each store.” And he sees that decentralization as at the heart of Barnes & Noble’s success.

That’s pretty counterintuitive for corporate America, where the standard thinking is that you want people to go into every branch of your store or bank and feel like it’s familiar.

In the church, we’re generally much more supportive of local variety. From architecture to programs offered, every parish is different—even if they’re just blocks apart.

The more diminishment we experience, the bleaker our outlook becomes. Maybe there is no way back. But that is what they said about Barnes & Noble, too.

But within those churches, do we give the great people that we hire permission to do their jobs as they see fit? Do we entrust them with enough autonomy to be bold or to try new things? And do we see signs that staff feel that sense of freedom, too? As Catholics most of us have been taught since childhood that you don’t question Father, and it is second nature to defer. Even in an open, welcoming environment it can feel enormously transgressive to disagree with a priest or bishop. What mechanisms does a parish or diocese have to help overcome that?

Question the long accepted

Mr. Daunt’s practices actually provide a good example of how clergy or administrators in a parish or diocese might help staff feel empowered. During the pandemic, Mr. Daunt told all of his stores to go through their entire inventory and “weed out the rubbish.” Wrote Mr. Gioia: “He asked employees in the outlets to take every book off the shelf, and re-evaluate whether it should stay. Every section of the store needed to be refreshed and made appealing.”

In a parish or diocesan context, we might have our committees consider their various programs and see if there are any that need more support, given our mission of celebration and experience of God, or that don’t really fit as they are. In a parish, we might have a group go through the actual church and consider each piece of artwork.

The fact is, churches have a way of accumulating stuff—programs, practices, sculptures—and dioceses do, too. And at some point, if a church isn’t careful, those things end up attaining a priority they don’t deserve, just because they have been around. Decisions that were once important innovations become requirements whether the situations they were responding to still exist or not, simply because they are the way we’ve always done it. And before long, “our bookshelves” don’t have much room for the actual mission of the church, sharing that experience of God.

When Mr. Daunt let his people make these kinds of decisions, the effect was shocking. An astonishing 97 percent of the titles on the shelves at Waterstones ended up being purchased by customers. And returns dropped to almost zero.

There are plenty of reasons people aren’t coming to church the way they did even 10 years ago, and not all of them have to do with the church itself. But many of them do. And the more diminishment we experience, the bleaker our outlook becomes. Maybe there is no way back. But that is what they said about Barnes & Noble, too.

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