Barnes and Noble are the last two men standing after watching all their competitors permanently close their doors within the last few decades — Borders, Waldenbooks, B. Dalton, and Crown books. It all began at Arthur Hinds & Company, a bookstore located in the Cooper Union Building in New York City. Gilbert Clifford Noble, who graduated from Harvard, was hired as a clerk in 1894 and eight years later offered a partnership. At that point, the bookstore was renamed Hinds & Noble and moved to a building on 15th Street. Fast forward to 1917: the book business was booming; consequently, Noble bought out Hinds and brought on William Barnes as a partner. (William was the son of Noble’s good friend, Charles who started a book printing business in Wheaton, Illinois; the firm would later become Follett Corporation). At that point, the bookstore became Barnes & Noble. Noble stayed with the business he founded for just 13 more years; he sold his share of the bookstore to John Barnes, William Barnes’s son. Noble died in 1936 at the age of 72; Barnes died less than a decade later in 1945 at the age of 78.
Barnes & Noble is now the largest store standing — it is the largest national bookstore chain in the United States, with more than 660 retail stores (in all 50 states), operating 700 college bookstores, and employing more than 34,000 full-time employees. The bookseller also remains one of the nation’s largest publishers, publishing hardback and paperback versions of literary classics and popular nonfiction titles. In the past decade, it has acquired SparkNotes (an educational publishing and website company, best known for its insightful guides to classic literary works — indispensable for high school and college students who want to discuss or write about a novel without actually having to read it)) and Sterling Publishing (a publisher of popular nonfiction titles). To compete in the digital world, in 2009 Barnes & Noble introduced its electronic book reader, the Nook, built on the Android platform. The Nook is allocated valuable retail space and promoted heavily in all of its stores. (In 2014, Barnes & Noble spun off Nook as a separate company.)
Imagine if Gilbert Noble and William Barnes could see how the book selling business has evolved from their original modest bookstore almost a century ago. What a story!
For further reading: Book Row: An Anecdotal and Pictorial History of the Antiquarian Book Trade by Marvin Mondlin, Carroll & Graf (2003)