Leonard Riggio radically altered bookselling in America when he bought an ailing New York City bookstore and turned it into a national chain of megastores.
Now, his company — Barnes & Noble — is floundering, the publishing industry that depends on it is worried, and Mr. Riggio has nobody to turn to but himself.
That much became starkly evident last month when Barnes & Noble abruptly fired its chief executive, Demos Parneros, with little explanation. Mr. Parneros was the fourth noninterim chief executive in five years, a remarkable amount of turnover at a large company.
The news left alarmed publishers and investors complaining that the chain is once again dealing with a management vacuum when it desperately needs to adapt and innovate. Sales are falling. The Nook, Barnes & Noble's attempt at selling electronic books, became a financial drain. Critics say the company lacks direction, sometimes seeming to prioritize sales of gifts and tchotchkes over books. For investors, the impact is already evident: Barnes & Noble's stock price is down 60 percent over the last three years.
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Publishers are worried that a crucial pipeline for book sales could be crumbling.
"It would be disastrous if they go down," said Dennis Johnson, a co-publisher of Melville House, an independent press. "If 600 bookstores disappear from the country, there will be that many fewer visible books, which seem to be receding from their place in the culture."
Mr. Riggio, 77, the company's chairman, disputed the notion that Barnes & Noble is mired in a leadership crisis. After all, he said during an interview at the company's headquarters on New York's Fifth Avenue, he has always been there.
And he has a plan to turn things around.
"I have a big stake in the business, I founded it and I've been here forever, so I think there's a lot of stability that comes with that," said Mr. Riggio. "If we're without a leader, I'm it."
Mr. Riggio built Barnes & Noble from a single Manhattan bookstore into a national fleet of superstores, many with more than 100,000 titles, transforming the business of selling books from a genteel and fusty profession into a mass-market moneymaker. The company boasts that it has sold 6.7 billion books since going public 24 years ago.
The expansion was so successful that the company was frequently vilified as a corporate behemoth driving local bookstores out of business (see: Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks in "You've Got Mail"). Between 1995 and 2009, the number of independent bookstores fell 43 percent, according to the American Booksellers Association.