4 Lessons the Church Can Learn from the Millennial and Gen Z Revival of Barnes & Noble

growth mindset Mar 21, 2023
4 Lessons the church can learn from the revival of Barnes & Noble


Millennials and Gen Zers are leaving the church in increasing numbers. That's no secret, right? But did you know they're flocking to Barnes & Noble, and local booksellers in their community?

Since the pandemic lockdowns, Barnes & Noble has experienced a revival, and it's being driven by something that may surprise you...

Nostalgia for the good old days before the Internet!

I think this is incredibly fascinating. And I believe there are four key lessons the church can learn from the Millennial and Gen Z Revival of Barnes & Noble, on how to better engage the younger generations.


Links for Today's Show


What the Church Can Learn From the Revival of Barnes & Noble

Do you remember back when Amazon.com started…and it only sold books? We have to go back all the way back to July 16, 1995. That’s when Amazon launched.

And within 10 years Amazon became so dominant that many experts predicted that it would kill all the brick and mortar bookstores, who just couldn't compete on price.

Several major national bookstore chains have closed over the years. Familiar names you might remember like Borders Books & Music, Waldenbooks, and Family Christian Stores, along with dozens of smaller, local bookstores.

Then in 2006-2007 the e-Reader revolution began with the introduction of the Sony Reader, then Kindle, then Nook. And of course, now we can read e-books on our iPad, Tablets, computers, and even our phones.

And experts have wondered if physical books could soon become a thing of the past. Especially since Millennials and post-Millennials are digital natives, having totally grown up in an online world.

Then COVID happened, and bookstores and other retailers were forced to close for months, and we all wondered if that would be the end of our friendly neighborhood bookstores.

Turns out, it wasn’t.


Local Bookstores are Experiencing a Revival

Because this past Christmas season, I happened to notice that the bookstores in my community were thriving. Every time I’d drive past or stop into a Barnes & Noble, or one of our smaller, local booksellers, their parking lots were packed.

And now three months after Christmas, these stores are still keeping busy. In fact, one day, driving past Schuler Books, our largest local book shop here in Grand Rapids, MI where I live, I said to myself. “Well, I guess Amazon hasn’t killed all the bookstores yet.”

Then a few weeks ago, I listened to a podcast that talked about the revival of Barnes & Noble booksellers, and I discovered some fascinating reasons why Barnes & Noble, and many local bookstores, are actually thriving today, post-COVID.


Revival is Being Driven by Millennial & Gen Z Nostalgia

The reasons why surprised me. Maybe they will surprise you too. It’s largely because of Millennials, GenZers and their feelings of nostalgia for the good old days.

Listening to this show, I began to wonder if the factors inspiring the success of these booksellers, after a tough season of decline, could somehow help the church succeed and grow as well.

So today I want to share 4 lessons the church can learn from the revival of Barnes and Noble on how to engage Gen Zers and Millennials.

But first, do you ever wonder what tools I’m using to grow my online business? Are you thinking of starting a website, platform, or podcast, but you don’t know how or where to start? Then I invite you to check out my tools and resources page on my website. You’ll find it at www.morethanapastor.com/tools, and discover the exact tools I’m using, and learn how you can too. 


Struggling Barnes & Noble Had Four CEOS in Five Years

So, a couple of weeks ago I was listening to a fascinating interview that Brian Kilmeade did with James Daunt, the CEO of Barnes & Noble.

Daunt came to Barnes & Noble as its new CEO in 2019, right before COVID. I think he said he had been the fourth CEO of the company in five years, if I remember right.

A short time into his tenure, the COVID lockdowns began, and all his stores were closed for months.

Despite the immense uncertainty that COVID brought to our country and his company, Daunt was undaunted, and he took this season of empty stores as an opportunity to do something different.


The Pandemic Presented an Unprecedented Opportunity to Do Something Different

Previously, Barnes & Noble stores were fairly cookie cutter in their layout, and decisions on store decor, product offerings, and pricing, were decided at the corporate level.

But Daunt felt that COVID gave them the opportunity to get rid of the structures that have held their people and profits back. One of the biggest financial decisions he made was to no longer take promotional money from publishers, which dictated how certain books must be displayed, and for how long, in all their stores.

Then he implemented a hyper-local strategy where local store directors would be empowered to make decisions that affected their stores.

As part of that strategy, he gave each director the autonomy to remake their stores in a way that better reflected the tastes of their local community.

Some painted walls, installed new carpeting, rearranged the furniture and shelving. Previously, the corporate HQ dictated how stores should be laid out, and what products were to be featured where, but now store directors were freed up to customize their shelf offerings, selling books and products that were best suited for their area, and getting rid of the rest. Store directors were even given autonomy to set their own prices.


Barnes & Noble Sees Sales Growth and Expansion for First Time in Years

This strategy must have worked, because in 2021 Barnes & Noble set the record for sales of books in the US. And in 2023, they are now opening their first new locations in 10 years.

Daunt believes that the months-long pandemic lockdowns and social distancing actually sparked a revival in getting people back into bookstores. Today Barnes & Noble is thriving, and many local community bookstores are thriving too.


Millennials & Post-Millennials are Driving the Revival of the Local Bookstore

And this bookstore revival is being driven by Gen Zers and Millennials. Which is interesting because they are the digital natives who have grown up in an online world. But they are drawn to bookstores for the nostalgia of it.


The Younger Generations Value Physical Books

Yeah, coming to a bookstore, browsing the shelves, discovering a book or author that’s new to you, sitting down to read a bit, and maybe even buying a book, takes them back to the good old days…to a time before the internet when everything was, like a book: Real, tangible, and holdable.

Yeah, I guess I hadn’t really thought about it in that way before, but there is something about the physical experience of browsing the shelves, and buying books in a bookstore that can't be replicated online.

Yes, e-readers like Kindles or Nooks have their place, according to Daunt, like when we’re traveling and don’t want to carry the weight of physical books.

But people are going to continue to want physical books. Because there’s just something about holding a book, flipping through its pages, and even smelling the paper, that produced an enjoyable sensory experience for us.

Books are also used for decoration. And books have sentimental value. They give meaning to people.

Do you have books like that…that have sentimental value or have given meaning to your life? Maybe that one book in college that impacted your life so much, maybe because of how it opened a whole new world up to you.


The Younger Generations Value Third Spaces

But Gen Zers and Millennials aren’t just coming back to Barnes & Noble to buy books. They’re also coming for a pleasant third space experience, a place that’s not home and not the office, where they can:

  1. Read, relax, study in a peaceful environment - In the midst of our busy and noisy world, Barnes & Noble offers a peaceful environment where you can escape from the outside world and get lost in a good book. It's a great place to relax, de-stress, unwind, and maybe even study or work.
  2. Enjoy a cuppa coffee, tea, or other beverages - Similar to the sensory experience of holding a book in your hand, there’s something about holding a cup in your hand. And many find that the smell of coffee, the latte art, and the taste of premium drinks found in a coffee shop or bookstore work to create a meaningful and enjoyable experience for them.
  3. Gather with others - Local bookstores often serve as gathering places for book lovers, where people can meet up with friends, attend book clubs, author events, and other literary gatherings. This can create a sense of community that is hard to replicate online.


Similarities Between Barnes & Noble and the Church

So as I listened to this interview with James Daunt, the CEO of Barnes & Noble, I couldn’t help but wonder if there are any lessons the church could learn from this revival that Barnes & Noble is experiencing. And how the church might be able to tap into the Millennial and post-Millennial feelings for nostalgia, desire for real connection, and appreciation for third spaces, to help foster its own revival?

Because, like Barnes & Noble, the church has faced...

  1. Economic uncertainty
  2. COVID lockdowns
  3. Massive disruption that threatens to upend the model

Like Barnes & Noble the church can offer...

  1. Third space type of environment for connection and community
  2. Meaningful relationships
  3. Coffee


4 Key Lessons the Church Can Learn from the Revival of Barnes & Noble

Here are 4 key lessons I took away from the interview. Barnes & Noble…

1. Embraced disruption as a gift and an opportunity to do something different - Are you still waiting for things to go back to pre-COVID normal? Or have you recognized that we can’t go back and we’re moving forward and have you accepted this disruption as a gift?

2. Eliminated structures that were no longer working, that had held their people and profits back - What structures or policies or programs are holding you and your church back from making the kind of impact you could have?

3. Empowered local decision makers to make changes that worked best for their community - Are you holding on to decisions that others could and should make? Are you stuck in

4. Earned the trust of Millennials and Gen Zers by tapping into their feeling of nostalgia, desire for real connection, and appreciation for third spaces - Do you know what the Millennials and post-Millennials in your congregation are looking for? If not, let’s start having those conversations? Then explore how you could tweak what you’re already doing now to tap into their values? Or what could you start doing?

Here are a couple of ideas to get you started in your thinking. Some of these ideas could even create alternative sources of income for your church.

  1. Dodge ball
  2. Game night
  3. Book discussion club
  4. Hobby club
  5. Side Hustle start-up club
  6. Play place for kids
  7. Dog park
  8. Fitness classes
  9. Family fun nights

But the problem is that many in our culture no longer trust the church or see it as relevant. So we need to show up differently.

People today want real connection and community, but they want it without the feeling of judgment or condemnation. And maybe it’s not about them and their life, but it’s for their friend, and they don’t think the church would be a safe place to invite them, because once the church gets to know the person, then they’ll be judged.

Jesus was able to engage with the most broken people without causing them to feel judged or condemned. In fact, we might say that his methods sparked a revival that turned the world upside down. Maybe, just maybe, we can too.

I’d love to get your feedback on this. We can discuss it over in the more than a pastor community on Facebook. If you’re not a member yet - it’s free - you can join by going to www.morethanapastor.com/facebook

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