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Barnes & Noble's Jekyll and Hyde

You've heard of the bad Len Riggio, bludgeoning publishers, strangling independent bookstores. The good Len Riggio funds schools, museums, and libraries and says his evil side is a figment of his enemies' imaginations.

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Leonard Riggio, the 58-year-old chairman and chief executive of Barnes & Noble, is on the phone trying to close a deal with the writer Toni Morrison. Most authors are eager to please Riggio, the head of the country's biggest bookstore chain. But Morrison's rare success -- she has won both the Nobel Prize and the Oprah Winfrey seal of approval -- gives her license to be stubborn. "Toni," Riggio finally asks, "are you so rich now that you don't care anymore?" Riggio himself is one of the richest people in the U.S. and well acquainted with the moral burdens of wealth and power. The success of his capacious, librarylike superstores has ironically made him the villain of the literary world -- accused of breaking antitrust laws, closing down thousands of independent bookstores, bullying publishers, and flattening the literary landscape. A decade of criticism has battered his public image into a caricature: college dropout from Bensonhurst and swarthy, hotheaded philistine.

That portrayal wounds Riggio deeply. He sees himself as something else entirely: a man of high purpose, committed to art, literature, the best that has been thought and said. In fact, Riggio was trying to enlist Morrison not to hawk books but to read at the dedication of a new library for the Children's Defense Fund's campus in Clinton, Tennessee. Riggio had put up $1 million to build and stock it, and picked the artist Maya Lin, whose Vietnam Veterans Memorial he'd long admired, to design it. And he'd derailed the group's plans to name the library after himself, suggesting instead that it be dedicated to Langston Hughes.

Riggio's cajoling (and the promise of transportation onboard a Riggio-chartered jet) helped persuade Morrison to sign on, and she joined Hillary Clinton, Rita Dove, and Joyce Carol Oates on the event's program. At the dedication, Riggio hobnobbed cheerfully with the assembled liberal activists, scholars, and writers, happy to be respected not only for his money and power but for his ideas. He opined to Maya Lin about the achievements of the artist Donald Judd and bantered with former New York City deputy mayor Bill Lynch about Al Sharpton's "leadership qualities." "This whole thing is wonderful," Riggio said, leaving one panel discussion. "But what aggravates me is that there is no call to arms. I mean, what are we going to do about all this?"

Still, much as Riggio may like to devote his energies to "the movement," as he calls it, he has a business to run. And as Barnes & Noble tries to catch up with Amazon.com in online bookselling, his public image as a greedy monopolist is beginning to catch up with him. Amazon.com's preppy 35-year-old founder, Jeff Bezos, has beguiled the press and won the allegiance of trend-setting consumers by portraying his company as hip and innovative while casting Barnes & Noble as a predatory behemoth. "Goliath is always in range of a good slingshot," Bezos (whose personal net worth is probably ten times that of Riggio) announced when Barnes & Noble agreed to acquire the distribution giant Ingram Book Group. In an irony not lost on Riggio, Bezos even teamed up with the small bookstores' trade group to lobby antitrust regulators into opposing the acquisition. And so Riggio finds himself once again in the spotlight. While the book world is watching to see if Barnes & Noble can stage a comeback in the Internet bookselling business -- he spun out his own Website, barnesandnoble.com, or bn.com, in an IPO last month -- Riggio himself is waging a more personal struggle, to overcome his lingering image as a menace to literature.

Hi, I'm Lenny," Riggio says, introducing himself in a voice that still carries a hint of the nasal "dese" and "doze" of his native borough. He is a short, dapper man, with a round face, a trim mustache, and a Mediterranean nose. It is the afternoon after the initial public offering of bn.com, and he is sizing up a giant cake in the shape of a B that's been delivered to his office. "It's kind of a letdown," he says of the IPO experience. "It's sort of like the day after Christmas. Some people get all excited, but, you know, I've done this a number of times now, and I am a little more even-keeled than that."

Maintaining his composure wasn't easy that week. In an apparent attempt to upstage Riggio's IPO, Jeff Bezos had just announced that Amazon.com would begin discounting best-sellers 50 percent -- forcing Riggio to match him. And the Federal Trade Commission's staff said it would oppose his Ingram acquisition as anti-competitive. The news sent bn.com's stock plunging below its offering price. But perhaps most galling to Riggio was an article in that month's Wired magazine about bn.com.

"Whatever I say, they can always find a way to turn it into 'the combative Len Riggio,' " he says. "What the press writes about me has nothing to do with who I am -- it's not even close!"

Amid the hectic preparations for the spin-off, Riggio found time to fire off a four-page point-by-point rebuttal to the Wired piece. The story "unnecessarily humiliated" him and his company, Riggio wrote, especially when it called his superstores "dastardly" and his mustache "an anachronism." Nor was it fair to say that he terrorized the book business like a schoolyard bully; he is the one who feels beat up. "Bullies come disguised in many costumes," he wrote to the magazine's editor-in-chief. "Some even wear the garb of objective journalists."


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