Monday, November 7, 2011 at 1:48 pm.

The most impressive thing about the Nook Tablet is that it exists

Nook TabletBarnes & Noble announced its latest Nook e-readers today, including the Nook Tablet. For details, check out Peter Kafka’s liveblog at All Things D or extensive coverage at The Verge, including a handy tablet comparison chart.

The Nook Tablet is basically a souped up e-reader — like the new Kindle Fire, without Amazon’s video ecosystem, app store, or cloud services. Also like the Kindle Fire, it’s not really an iPad replacement. But if all you want to do is read e-books, maybe a magazine, see the web, stream Pandora, and use a limited selection of apps and video, it may be enough.

But the most impressive thing about the Nook Tablet — and the whole Nook business, really — is that it actually exists. Barnes & Noble says that the Nook is almost a $2 billion business already, suggesting it’s about a quarter of the company’s sales. Not bad!

Sure, B&N is not a technology leader, per se: While the original Nook Color beat the Kindle Fire to market by a year, Amazon has quickly caught up, and in many respects, has already passed the Nook. And B&N hasn’t leapfrogged anyone in any aspect of tablet hardware, software, digital media distribution, or any of the related services.

But it’s pretty impressive that a brick-and-mortar retail chain is even in the running in this business.

This isn’t a company with a strong electronics background like Apple or Sony, or an Internet leader like Amazon or Google, or even anything close. This is a company that has spent most of its recent history selling paper books and magazines, cat calendars, overpriced CDs, and Starbucks coffee.

You didn’t see Best Buy, Blockbuster, or Circuit City doing anything ground-breaking in video, or Sam Goody or Coconuts doing anything impressive in digital music. Office Depot and Staples haven’t done anything special in online documents. Borders belly-flopped at everything digital.

But Barnes & Noble has actually made a serious run in e-books, e-readers, and now color tablets. It may not last, or win, or save the company. In some regards, the Nook is still — as I wrote a couple of years ago — “the new Zune” of e-readers. But it is here, and executing, and relevant. And that’s better than most other legacy retail companies can say.

Related: 5 takeaways from Amazon’s Kindle Fire event