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Barnes & Noble's Jekyll and Hyde

"The rich are getting richer and the poor poorer," confirms Roger Straus, of Farrar, Straus & Giroux. "There is no question that the superstores have made it possible for the best-sellers to be bigger than ever. That is why we sold 750,000 copies of Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities, and 1.1 million of A Man in Full. The downside is that with small books, it doesn't do any good, and maybe it does some harm. They don't get attention, and they are returned in a hurry."

Copies of the top 30 best-selling books in fiction and nonfiction rose from 7 percent of U.S. hardcover-book sales in 1986 to 13 percent a decade later. Riggio often points out that less than 4 percent of superstore book revenue comes from Times best-sellers. But the best-sellers' rising share of the hardcover market still suggests a concentration of sales. According to Barnes & Noble merchandising executives, just 100 of the more than 45,000 new titles in its superstores make up 20 percent of new-title sales revenue; just 500 titles make up the same portion of revenue from more than 500,000 backlist books. The book industry, says the retail consultant Paco Underhill, increasingly tends to sell books the way Baskin-Robbins sells ice cream -- stocking 31 flavors to sell just 4. (His own "feelings were hurt," he says, when he found his own book, Why We Buy, buried in the back of the Barnes & Noble superstore near his Chelsea office.)

"I disagree 180 degrees," Riggio says. "Our stores are so big, we feature more books than anyone. There are whole sections in our stores where the stores' managers make decisions over areas that are bigger than the whole independent stores themselves. They make it sound like we're suppressing ideas! That is the dumbest thing in the world. We are in the business of selling ideas."

Born on Mott Street in Little Italy, Riggio grew up at 84th Street and Sixteenth Avenue in Bensonhurst, where his mother still lives in the family's old house when she isn't visiting her son. "It was a neighborhood where you didn't go looking for trouble, but if trouble came to you, you weren't going to run away," says Angelo "Gingie" Volpe, a sandlot-baseball teammate of Riggio's who is now the president of Tennessee Technological University: "Lenny had a temper when he needed to." Did anyone see the tycoon that Riggio would someday become? "As we would have said back then in Brooklyn, 'Fuggedaboudit,' " Volpe says.

Riggio's parents are a sensitive subject. His father was a high-school dropout who became a prizefighter and twice defeated Rocky Graziano -- a biographical detail that floats to the top of nearly any story about his bookseller son. "It's disgusting! That was 50 years ago," Riggio says. His father and his boxer friends were in reality gentle, humble men, he says. "They always knew there was someone tougher." His father drove a cab for most of Leonard's childhood and instilled in him an iron will to succeed, Riggio says. Even as a cabdriver, his father kept training his body, believing that physical fitness was vital to mental acuity. At traffic lights, he would jump out of his cab to do push-ups and deep knee bends. "Other cabbies thought he was crazy, but they never told him to his face," Riggio recalls.

But his father taught him other values as well, particularly skepticism toward figures of authority and a "passion for justice," Riggio says. "My father had a strong feeling for the working person. He was a union man. And he was very much against war, even the Second World War, the so-called good war. He always thought wars were waged by people who wanted to protect their wealth and kept their kids out of it and let the common people lose their sons."

"Our stores are so big, we feature more books than anyone. There are whole sections in our stores that are bigger than the whole independent stores themselves."

Riggio skipped two grades before he was admitted to Brooklyn's selective magnet school, Brooklyn Technical High School, in Fort Greene, where he studied draftsmanship, architecture, and design. "The other kids were two years older, more mature, bigger, smarter -- well, I didn't think smarter," he says. "My friends used to copy me, if you know what I mean." He also earned what he once called "the blackest disciplinary record" in the school.

After he'd graduated, an older friend from the neighborhood who worked as a floor manager at the New York University bookstore got Riggio a job as a clerk in its school-supplies section, and Riggio enrolled in the university's night school to study metallurgical engineering.

For a few years, he says, he became caught up in the "tumult" of the sixties. "I began meeting hippies and people from all walks of life, this whole world that I had no knowledge of. The youth movement, the civil-rights movement, the sexual revolution -- it all occurred while I was at my best." On weekends, he would hang out at Italian social clubs back in Brooklyn, at salsa or jazz clubs in Harlem, or in discos downtown. "It was my John Travolta trip," he says.