B&NIt would be easy to feel a bit sorry for Barnes & Noble. It is the biggest brick and mortar bookseller in North America, fighting the good fight for literacy against a tide of economic disaster. It has been laid waste by the internet and in particular, Amazon, one of the most innovative companies ever. Competing against Amazon in the 90s was kind of like playing Michael Jordan in his rookie season. You just didn’t know how good he was until you lost to him. Then, after the B&N business model was hit hard, the printed page is being attacked by eBooks.

But this here is business, young man, and it’s no time for the faint of heart. No longer is B&N employing the  the “if you can’t beat ’em don’t join ’em” strategy. It has finally, and admirably, made a move that doesn’t involve closing stores. Late last week it purchased Fictionwise, an eBook retailer that is rumored to be developing a Kindle-competitor, hand-held eBook reader.

First reaction might be to write B&N off as “too little, too late.” But don’t write its ending too quickly. Amazon’s focus on the Kindle put an outsized amount of publicity on eBooks. According to Codex, a book industry research house, eBooks tripled in growth last year, but still only represents one percent of total book sales. The jury is out on whether consumers will read entire books on a Kindle, other handheld such as the iPhone, or even on a laptop. B&N is increasing its stake in ecommerce at a crucial time. It will drive traffic through its website to Fictionwise, cut better deals with publishers for advertising, and just might use all that digital real estate to drive people into its other real estate: book stores.

It’s not often that multichannel retailers make positive steps in this economy. B&N’s slothful progress up to this point in selling online and neglecting to work its cross-channel database will never make it to the top of anyone’s most innovative company list. But let’s give credit where credit is due. B&N is still trying to be the hero of its own story.