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Barnes & Noble's Jekyll and Hyde

Riggio is also a staunch Giuliani opponent. He stepped in for a time as David Dinkins's finance chairman during his second mayoral campaign. After he lost, Riggio was brutally frank about his assessment, says Bill Lynch, Dinkins's deputy mayor. "Len said it was a blow to the city for the first African-American mayor to lose re-election. He told us he thought we didn't go to our base enough, that there were expectations there that we didn't fulfill."

And last year, Riggio pledged $1 million to kick off a funding campaign for his alma mater Brooklyn Tech -- an effort he sees as a kind of political statement about the viability of the public schools in the face of an assault from the right. "First, it was getting tough on crime. Then we have got to kill them, so we have capital punishment. So then, okay, no parole," he explains heatedly. "Now they go after the public schools and say they don't work! School vouchers? I mean, come on! That's like saying the government doesn't work, so let's have no government. Race becomes a handle for it, but it's deeper than that -- it is race and class."

Riggio's other passions -- art and betting on horses -- are more typical of the plutocracy, though he pursues them with surprising intensity and sophistication. He became interested in modern sculpture in 1990, when an architect Riggio hired to design a new pool house in Bridgehampton took him to the Socrates Sculpture Park, in Long Island City. Today, his Bridgehampton estate boasts one of the most valuable private collections of modern sculpture in the country, including work by Willem de Kooning, Barry Flanagan, Mark di Suvero, George Rickey, John Chamberlain, Isamu Noguchi, Claes Oldenburg, Barbara Hepworth, and Henry Moore.

Last year, he made a $1 million gift of Richard Serra's mammoth Torqued Ellipses to the Dia Center of the Arts, its first major addition since 1983, and this January, he became the center's chairman. Within months, he had helped forge a deal to turn an abandoned cardboard factory in Beacon, New York, into a capacious new Dia gallery space bigger than the Museum of Modern Art.

He's also toyed with the idea of getting into the gallery business. "I wanted to open art stores, to sell art in a way that
isn't intimidating, like I did for books. Art galleries make people feel like you don't know anything and only they do. Even I feel intimidated. I hate museum architecture too. Frank Gehry is a great architect -- I mean, brilliant -- but, to me, the Guggenheim Bilbao just doesn't work. It overwhelms the work within it."

Don't expect art superstores any time soon, however. "I have too much to do around here already," he says, "especially with the whole 'dot-com' thing. Besides, I'm tired of commercial stuff; I've done enough of that already."

Just as riggio moves to expand Barnes & Noble's online store, Internet bookselling is beginning to draw some of the same criticisms that his superstores did. Independent stores complain that shoppers are turning up at authors' appearances to get signatures for books that they have already bought on the Web. The New York Times played as front-page news the revelation that was selling promotional space on its Website. Editors warily note that marketing money may prove decisive to a book's success online even more than in superstores. Without promotions, titles can get lost easier on a Website than in a superstore. And searching by subject always leads to the most popular book in any category -- reinforcing the rich-get-richer, winner-take-all trend in book sales.

Wall Street, of course, doesn't care about such concerns. And some analysts believe Barnes & Noble has already turned a corner. "Jeff Bezos does get a lot of free publicity, but hip and innovative only works for so long," says Henry Blodget, of Merrill Lynch. "Riggio said, 'Oops, I was wrong; we are behind, and I am going to attack.' I think he saved the franchise."

On the wall outside Riggio's office hangs a sculpture by the multimedia artist Nam June Paik -- an old Victrola's horn painted with flowers, a small video screen at its center -- that Riggio says evokes for him the theory behind both his superstores and Internet bookstores. "I had been spending a lot of time, way before the Internet, thinking about media and Marshall McLuhan's whole concept of the global village, of building networks," Riggio says. "When I look at Nam June Paik's work, I think about how books, and media and television and visual art, are all about information, about programming the mind. I see connections between books and bookstores and networks.

"If a network is cool, like x-y-z discount store, there isn't an endearing relationship between the client and the network," Riggio says, slipping into McLuhan-speak. "But when the network gets hot, the customers bond with the store strongly, almost endearingly. That is why the great retailers' bags become fashion accessories. At its best, a chain becomes a network, so that people who participate in Barnes & Noble activities, which include shopping, feel something in common with people in faraway places who share the same activities."

Riggio's superstores succeeded because they created a more comfortable -- even a more communal -- way to buy books, which is precisely the challenge he faces online. "The Internet affords you the opportunity to do the kind of hand selling that you logistically can't do in a bookstore," he says. "If a customer asks for a book and wants to see some reviews, online you can give them to him." To that end, he has already distinguished with a host of new offerings, such as connections to The New York Times Book Review, an online catalogue of recommendations from the eggheaded New York Review of Books, the Quarterly Black Review, and a literary magazine called Tin House. And will increasingly coordinate events and promotions with Barnes & Noble stores, where you can already return books ordered online.

"How do I stack up against some other store? I don't see that at all. How do I stack up against Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King? These are the standards I aspire to."

Not surprisingly, controversy has followed Riggio online. Last week, the ABA won a ruling from the Council of Better Business Bureaus that could no longer use its slogan, "If we don't have your book nobody does." Sometimes, it turns out, an independent does, so Barnes & Noble will have to modify its claim. "This is a practical and a moral victory," proclaimed Avin Mark Domnitz, chief executive of the ABA.

"The ABA?" says Riggio. "Them again? You know, there are two ways to run a race. One way is, you try to run faster. The other way is, you try to hold on to someone else's shorts. If you look at where I am and where I came from, that is a story about self-improvement, not vindication. How do I stack up against, or some other store? Egad! I don't see that at all. How do I stack up against William O. Douglas, or Mahatma Gandhi, or Martin Luther King Jr. -- these are the standards I aspire to.

"What I am trying to say is, not only am I running fast, I am running on a different track. Nobody is grabbing my shorts, and I sure as hell am not grabbing theirs."