1856 Knox Graduate Barnes a Pioneer in Publishing

Closing of Chicago-area Barnes & Noble bookstore highlights career of Charles M. Barnes

January 07, 2010

Charles M. BarnesThe recent closing of a suburban Chicago Barnes & Noble bookstore has highlighted the contributions to the publishing industry of a 19th-century Knox College graduate, Charles M. Barnes.

The Chicago Tribune reported on January 1 that Barnes & Noble, "the national bookstore chain, which chose not to renew its Wheaton store's lease after almost 18 years in business, had its origins in the western suburb more than 135 years ago."

Specifically, the "Barnes" of Barnes & Noble was William Barnes, one of seven children of Charles M. Barnes -- an 1856 Knox College graduate who opened his first bookstore in Wheaton, and whose influence in publishing encompasses both Barnes & Noble and another leading firm in the field, Follett Corporation.

The Chicago Tribune story on Barnes & Noble reported that "Charles M. Barnes started a bookselling business from his home near Wheaton College in 1873... An alumnus of Knox College in downstate Galesburg and an ordained minister, Barnes came to Wheaton to follow his teacher and mentor, Wheaton College President Jonathan Blanchard, who had been Knox's president."

Born in 1833 in Canton, Illinois, Charles Barnes studied at Knox from 1850 to 1856, and at Chicago Theological Seminary until 1859, then served as a pastor for churches in La Moille and Neponset, Illinois. Blanchard was Knox's second president, from 1845 to 1857, when he left Knox to become the founding president of Wheaton.

According to Knox's alumni records, Charles Barnes and Ellen Moore were married in 1861; William was their third child, born in 1866.

During the Civil War, Charles Barnes was a chaplain for the 93rd Illinois Volunteer Regiment. Following the war he worked briefly as a pastor in Plymouth, Illinois, then for two years as a "route agent" for the postal service, before entering the book business. The regimental history of his Civil War service summarized Barnes's early career in the book trade as "a jobber of school books and stationery."

website histories of Follett trace the company's founding to 1873, "when Charles M. Barnes opened a used book store in his Wheaton, Illinois home... [Barnes was] a scholarly man who used his private library as his initial inventory... Three years later, Barnes moved his business, now named C.M. Barnes & Company, to Chicago where he sold new and used textbooks, stationary and school supplies..."

About 1900, responding to a request for information about alumni, Barnes wrote to Knox that he had been unable to continue working as a pastor for health reasons. "As for myself," Barnes wrote, "I would say [that my] past title [would be] Reverend. At present [I am] in the wholesale book trade."

According to web histories of Follett Corporation, "C.W. Follett joined [Barnes's] company in 1901... Barnes hired him for a week to help move his bookselling business to another location in Chicago. After his week was up, Follett stayed on and worked as a stock clerk and salesman, learning the book business from the inside out while working alongside Barnes's son, William. The following year, Charles Barnes retired and William became president... In 1908, the company was reorganized as C.M. Barnes - Wilcox Company when John Wilcox, William Barnes' father-in-law, became the company's primary shareholder. In 1912, C.W. Follett became vice president. In 1917 William Barnes sold his remaining interest in the company to John Wilcox" and eventually moved to New York. The company was later renamed Follett Corporation. Today Follett generates consolidated sales exceeding $2 billion and employs nearly 10,000 associates throughout the United States and Canada.

In New York, the Tribune reported, William Barnes joined with G. Clifford Noble in 1917 to found Barnes & Noble -- today the world's largest bookseller with more than 700 stores nationwide and an Internet division that sells eBooks, magazines, toys, games, and music.

The photo of Charles M. Barnes at the top of this page is from a set of portraits, housed in the Knox College Archives, of the Knox Class of 1856. Charles Barnes died in 1907.