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Barnes & Noble's Jekyll and Hyde

In his early reading, Riggio had focused primarily on Classic Comics, he says. But at the bookstore, he happened to work next to a thirtysomething Hungarian-born master's student named George Csernovics, the paperback buyer at the time, who went on to a career in publishing at Viking Penguin. "George said, 'Read this,' " Riggio recalls, "and he gave me all these serious books, by the carload" -- books by authors like Hermann Hesse, Albert Camus, Thomas Mann, and Lawrence Durrell.

Riggio enjoyed hanging around Gerde's Folk City in the Village, talking about Jean-Paul Sartre. But he never took to sitting in class. "I was determined to be a college-bookstore director and make twenty grand a year," Riggio says, "but then I found out that I would have to wait until I was 35 or 40 before I could be hired to be the director of the NYU bookstore! I said, 'I'm not waiting twenty years. I am already there!' "

In 1965, when he was 24 years old, Riggio dropped out of NYU for good and opened up his own, rival bookstore -- SBX, for student book exchange -- on Waverly Place.

At his new store, Riggio let student radicals print antiwar materials on the Gestetner duplicating machine in the basement. "In those days, that was a weapon in the movement," he says. "My own political persuasion at the time was very much to the left, although I didn't particularly care for some of the contradictions in the movement, like the emphasis on personality."

His own life began to move faster. "During the four years that I really ran the store, I had about 50 years' experience," he says. He married, had two daughters, and was divorced within six years. The store was drawing students from as far away as Columbia, in Morningside Heights, and St. John's, in Queens. By 1971, he had managed to parlay its success into contracts to manage about a half-dozen other campus bookstores. That year, he borrowed $1.2 million to buy Barnes & Noble, then just a single, poorly run Fifth Avenue store with an illustrious history.

Riggio immediately adopted the Barnes & Noble name for his company, and ran it like a family. His father and two brothers all worked in the store. "His dad never acted like, 'My son Len Riggio owns the store.' You would never know he was Len's dad," said Bill Maloney, who worked there at the time. "I think Len wanted someone he knew he could trust to run the office and handle the money." Riggio's brother Steven, then in high school, helped part-time as a clerk, and his brother Jimi worked at the store, too. (Today Steven is vice-chairman and Jimi helps run a trucking company that ships Barnes & Noble's books.)

Riggio soon demonstrated a knack for throwing his weight around the industry. Publishers had previously sold textbooks to college stores at a 20 percent discount off the cover price. When Riggio controlled enough college stores to give him leverage, he led a store-owners campaign to push the discounts to 25 percent. Within five years, Riggio had increased the Fifth Avenue store's annual sales from $1 million to $10 million, he says. He bought a home on Long Island, with room for his parents and brothers. "I was on top of the world," says Riggio. "I was my own boss. I was supporting my family. Everything else was just gravy," Riggio says. "I didn't open new stores to make money. It felt like a responsibility, rather than a sense of what you want to become."

Back then, the press loved him, and the feeling was mutual. In 1974, Riggio gave one of his first interviews, to the trade publication College Store Executive. He invited its editor, Louise Altavilla, to a coffee shop across the street from the Fifth Avenue store. "Without a doubt, the concentration of management experience and bookselling know-how attests to the growth of Barnes & Noble," her article concluded. They met again at a San Francisco book fair, and in 1981, he married her.

Riggio appeared in this magazine for the first time in 1977. He had made news by installing benches, telephones, and bathrooms in Barnes & Noble's enormous Sale Annex on Fifth Avenue to encourage shoppers to loiter. "I grew up with one ambition: not to work for the Man," he told New York. "And the thing is, my one accomplishment in life has been to become the Man."

Riggio graduated to the big leagues in 1984, when he met Dr. Anton Dreesmann, chief executive of the Dutch retail giant Vendex International. The third-generation heir to a department-store fortune, Dreesmann was a bookish sort of businessman who considered himself an intellectual; he held two doctoral degrees and had written a few volumes himself. Riggio was seeking an investor to help finance his small company's growth. He had some new ideas about running large-scale trade-book stores, like offering deep discounts on best-sellers to get shoppers in the door. The two men quickly hit it off. Riggio feverishly sketched out designs for the mammoth new stores he hoped to build, and Dreesmann loved the idea. Vendex paid $18 million for a 30 percent stake, and Riggio kept his book-loving minority partner happy by sending him free first editions, helping him develop one of the biggest libraries in Holland.

Dreesmann's support paid off in 1986. Dayton Hudson Corp. was selling its B. Dalton chain of mall bookstores for about $275 million -- about four times Barnes & Noble's value at the time. "It was the go-go eighties," Riggio recalls. "There were a lot of sharks swimming in shallow water." With financing from Michael Milken's investment bank, Drexel Burnham Lambert, Riggio managed to assemble the winning bid. Right before the deal closed, however, Drexel's bankers had a change of heart: They would cover the $100 million initial payment only if Riggio cut them a 20 percent stake in the deal. Riggio walked out, calling the move "a bait and switch."