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Barnes & Noble's Jekyll and Hyde

The next morning, Riggio called Dreesmann, who volunteered to lend him $100 million on the strength of an oral promise, and wired the money within days. Drexel's bankers quickly reversed themselves again and agreed to sell junk bonds to provide long-term financing for the deal. (Vendex continued to support Barnes & Noble with little profit until Barnes & Noble's initial public offering, in 1993.)

Despite the dispute with Drexel, Riggio and Milken became friends. "I went into Barnes & Noble one day, and a big, beautiful multicolored dictionary was on sale for about $19.95 -- about 30 percent of what ones like it were being sold for in other bookstores," Milken recalls. "Riggio told me that it only cost him about $3 to print it under his own Barnes & Noble imprint, and I concluded he knew more about marketing books than anyone I ever met."

In some ways, Riggio still runs his company like a giant mom-and-pop store. Curtis Gray, a former executive who is now a vice-president at Starbucks, recalls watching Riggio open his wallet and take out several hundred dollars to buy an aging office worker a set of false teeth. After the last San Francisco earthquake, Riggio reimbursed out of his own pocket any employee, from regional manager to store clerk, who lost property, Gray says.

But Riggio's demeanor can quickly turn stormy. "Goddamnit, I prophesied that this would happen!" he frequently begins upbraiding the M.B.A.'s around him. "If I am going to become a prophet, then I expect to profit from it!" Former members of the company's operating committee recall staring down at their notebooks in silence during weekly meetings to avoid getting in the line of fire.

"There are times when I fly off the handle -- anybody does -- but I don't have a crazy temper," Riggio says. "I get testy when people think they are smarter and that they can outsmart someone else. I am always exhorting our people to learn from their mistakes, as opposed to dwell on their success. I tend to be negative. I and the company are really rooted in negative self-criticism. Retailers have to be."

Some of his displays of temper, he says, are "theatrics." When Crown Books' chairman, Robert Haft, ran commercials mimicking Barnes & Noble's slogans and claiming to outdo its discounts, Riggio raged to staff, "This guy would drink our blood if we let him!" Once, after Waldenbooks' chairman, Harry Hoffman, publicly criticized the wisdom of a B. Dalton advertising campaign, Riggio circulated a memo to his book buyers, regional managers, and store directors accusing Hoffman of "buffoonery," "bad taste," and "boorish behavior." The memo explained that Riggio would not respond publicly, however, because "rolling in the gutter with a boor would only cause the casual observer to remark, 'Look at the two boors wrestling in the gutter' -- when in reality there would be a bookseller AND a boor.''

Riggio's zeal for self-criticism extends all the way down to his retail stores. "A store manager's biggest fear is that you have an ugly store and he is going to visit it," says Janine von Juergensonn, a Barnes & Noble executive and former store manager. "He sees it as reflecting his family and takes it as a personal affront," she says.

Riggio admits he sets high standards. "Our stores are much better than other retailers', but I hate 90 percent of them," Riggio says. "There is only so much you can do with commercial architecture, and I am kind of a fusspot."

During the week, Riggio lives with his wife, Louise, and their 15-year-old daughter in a Park Avenue apartment, and his chauffeur drives him to work in a Lincoln Town Car (he won't drive up Park Avenue, he sometimes jokes, because it irks him to see the Borders on the corner of 57th Street). The family spends weekends in a palatial Bridgehampton home, originally built for a coal baron and known as "the Minden Estate," where his mother is often on hand as well. (His father died in 1983.)

Riggio's friends include business associates, Democratic politicos, and a handful of writers like Gay Talese. But Riggio's companions are just as often old pals from his high school or his old neighborhood in Brooklyn. One of his best friends is a truck driver, Joe Barra, who today runs a company that ships books for Barnes & Noble.

His friend Angelo Volpe lost touch for a time and called to say that he had left a job as a professor. "Oh, do you need a job?" Riggio replied. As it happened, Volpe had stopped teaching to become a college president. "I can't begin to count the number of people who grew up in the old neighborhood who work for Barnes & Noble," Volpe says. "That's Lenny."

Riggio's friendship can be especially helpful if you are an author. Donald Stahl, an old friend from Brooklyn Tech with whom Riggio likes to fish on Shinnecock Bay -- in a small boat Stahl rents for $65 -- called Riggio when his brother, Norman Stahl, wrote his first book, The Buried Man. "Lenny," Donald Stahl said, "I never asked you for anything, and if this takes more than two minutes, forget it, but it would be nice if you could have a copy of my brother's book put in a window of your Fifth Avenue store." His brother received a phone call moments later. He soon happened upon his book in not just one but every window of the store. "I didn't even want that," Stahl says. "The word, by the way, is loyal."

Len Riggio's personal net worth is estimated to top $700 million, but his political beliefs haven't evolved along with his bank account; when Fortune magazine surveyed 204 chief executives' favorite reforms, he was the only one to call for policies to raise wages. "Money can become a burden, like something you carry on your shoulders," he says. "My nature is to be a ball-buster, but my role is to help people." He's taken a hands-on role in a wide range of liberal and Democratic causes. In 1992, he threw his muscle behind Bill Clinton, but has since grown alienated over his stance on capital punishment. This year, he's backing Bill Bradley.