A quick look at the photo above and it should be obvious that something’s afoot at this particular location of Barnes and Noble. Incidentally, I only heavily scrutinized a Barnes and Noble once before, also in Maryland, when I noticed a repositioning of merchandise within the interior just a few months ago. This time, the first thing I noticed was the exterior that’s a bit wonky. It’s that font: what happened to the blocky letters commonly associated with the nation’s longest continuously operating bookstore? As the photo indicates, these days it’s softer, quieter, sleeker. Is this yet another example of a company in the midst of a brand refresh? That’s what it looks like.
The location, at White Marsh—a blend of conventional mall and lifestyle center in the suburbs of Baltimore—appears to repurposing of a long-standing location. White Marsh as a whole is the broadly applied name to a suburban area about nine miles northeast of the Inner Harbor, where White Marsh Boulevard is the primary east-west arterial. It is not a municipality and has no political authority of its own. The Census Designated Place (CDP) features an eponymous mall and, directly south of the Honeygo Boulevard (the mall’s ring road), a lifestyle center called the Avenue at White Marsh, which has hosted the Barnes and Noble for twenty-five years.
But there’s more to it than that: this Google Street View from May 2019 shows the Barnes and Noble using the conventional green serif font that ought to conjure a whiff of nostalgia for Gen Xers. According to Logopedia, the typeface defined the brand throughout the 1990s, first as “Bookstore” from 1992 to 1997, then as “Booksellers” for the last two years of the decade. Despite that relatively short time as the signature logo, many B&N locations opted out of the next brand refresh. But by 2000, a new look vied in prominence with the “green serif”: an all-caps approach where the two founders’ surnames are green and the ampersand is orange. While a number of locations took the 2000s logo (as did the shopping bags), enough branches retained the serif option for the exterior that the 1990s incarnation, which White Marsh continued to use, never appeared too outdated or vintage. The brand basically bifurcated.
At the dawn of the 2020s, however, the Barnes and Noble logos have apparently begun to reconsolidate, opting instead for the thin caps in my topmost photo, which the White Marsh location will unveil as part of the logo above the entrance. The company’s main website now uses this typeface. Commensurate with this brand refresh, however, is a second critical detail that underlies the company’s aggressive attempt over the last fifteen years to outmaneuver the digital consumption of books, either through web-dominant retailers like Amazon or the activity of reading on a digital device: a tablet or e-reader (such as Nook). As recently as August 2022, the White Marsh Barnes and Noble still used the 1990s-era logo. But just weeks from the time of that Street View image, it temporarily closed so that it could consolidate in a different way. The new Barnes and Noble has abandoned the corner exposure visible in each of my Google Street Views. In its place: the eclectic casual regional chain, Silver Diner.
I didn’t know it at the time I took these photos in late June (I had never been to this White Marsh location before), but Barnes and Noble decided to shed almost one-third of its floor space through this brand refresh. According to a Baltimore Business Journal article from the time of the temporary closure, the location downsized from 27,000 to 20,000 square feet, with the emergent location continuing to feature a prominent B&N café (perhaps no Starbucks?); the same familiar selection of games, toys and gifts; and, according to multiple press releases, a reimagined shop “designed and curated for local audiences”.
Tailored. Curated. Local. These buzzwords prevail amidst the labyrinth of empty shelves not yet sited or fully stocked when I peered through the window a few weeks ago. It’s a very different interior. Gone are the drop ceilings with fluorescent lights, replaced with an almost vaulted industrial-chic appearance, complete with exposed pipes and ducts. Austere thought it may seem for a company that always prided itself in having easy chairs within reach, it appears that B&N’s latest brand refresh includes a reduction in inventory; there’s no way around it when it’s sacrificing so much floor space. But the surviving books (and toys and games) will respond to collected purchasing data, both in-store and from barnesandnoble.com, using analytics to position favored books reflective of suburban Baltimore tastes. At least, that’s my guess of what “curated” means: fewer obscure space-fillers that collect dust for months or years before someone buys a copy, and more shelf space devoted to things that sell well in greater Baltimore.
It’s a bold move, given the spotty track record for bookstores in the decade since B&N’s biggest competitor (Borders Books) collapsed. But, as the press releases indicate, Barnes and Noble is approaching this brand refresh with a boldness it hasn’t demonstrated in a quarter century: in 2022 alone, the company opened more bookstores than the entirety of the 2010s. And up to 30 more are slated to open before the end of this year. My suspicion is more of these locations will use the brand refresh above the entrance, and they’ll be smaller than the customary B&N location of yesteryear.
With the White Marsh grand re-opening slated in just a few days, time can only tell both how successful and how comprehensive the brand refresh will be. Its success will undoubtedly influence its comprehensiveness. Perhaps, in fact, I’m slow on the uptake, and numerous locations have already adopted the thin caps of the logo’s brand refresh, as well as the significantly reduced footprint. But the Washington/Baltimore region is a popular test market, so it wouldn’t surprise me if White Marsh is among the first to pilot a leaner, more tactical B&N. Not only is online searching and purchasing making it easier to collect and harness more refined data on consumer preferences, but retailers that want to last well into the 21st century have no choice but to be smart about their merchandize decisions—precisely why, as I noted a few months ago, locations are filling more and more with games, toys, manga. I suppose as long as at least 50% of the leasable space at a Barnes and Noble remains devoted to books, the company won’t face too many accusations of straying from its roots. And if it does…who cares? The brand refresh (and outright resuscitation) of Toys “R” Us isn’t likely to prove much of a threat any time soon.