Bookstores Arrive At Airports

The trend to move the selling of books away from newsstands to nationally known retailers has resulted in a dramatically changed bookselling landscape at airports.

Some booksellers were invited into airports to create local flavor. That was the case for Powell's Books, which opened three stores in the Portland airport between 1988 and 2003; Books Inc., which has a 2,700-sq.-ft. bookstore in the San Francisco airport, in addition to its 10 street stores; and Olsson's Books & Music, which is in Washington's Reagan National. Although all are happy with their airport stores?in Olsson's case, it's the most profitable of all six locations?it doesn't always make for smooth flying.

As Michael Tucker, owner of Books Inc., noted, "The minimal guarantees can make you choke." On top of that, the minimum wage at airport stores can be higher than at street stores, and the store has to be open 17 hours a day. On the other hand, Tucker said, "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger. We can move things in that store. It's a barometer for us. We open at 5 a.m. By 7 o'clock, if we've sold 40 or 50 copies of a new book, we know it is hot." And, he notes, turns can be so strong at the airport that they resemble "an agitation cycle."

High Flyers

No matter what the brand, many booksellers report similar trends. "The trend we're seeing is more hardcovers. It really started a couple years ago with The Nanny Diaries and The Lovely Bones ," said Books Inc. buyer Barry Rossnick. That's not to say that the store doesn't do well with anything other than hot hardcovers like The Historian , The Da Vinci Code and Freakonomics . "We sell more Penguin classics at the airport than at our other stores," Rossnick noted.

Classics are strong sellers even at used-book stores like Renaissance Bookshop, which stocks new copies of J.D. Salinger's and Ayn Rand's novels, as well as Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Douglas Adams's The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy , when it runs out of used copies. "Customers don't have a long time to make up their mind, so they buy what they know," said Olsson's head book buyer Joe Murphy, who regards the airport store as "a machine for bestsellers."

Powell's not only sells used books at its airport stores, it buys them, too, although increasingly airlines are turning to eBay to sell books left behind on planes. "A lot of people are looking for used books, but in mint condition," said veteran bookseller Mike Irwin, who acknowledged that "our airport customers really want the latest thing that has just come out. If an author is on The Today Show while they're getting dressed, they have to have it. Turn is a big deal here. At our main store, a book could sit for two or three years. Here, if it doesn't turn in two months, it's gone."

"We rotate ongoing bestsellers and backlist so frequent travelers will find a variety of titles each time they visit," said Hudson's Hinckley. In addition, children's books and merchandise tend to be strong sellers. "I am definitely not a firm believer that business travelers buy business books," adds Host's Nurse. "There are plenty of travelers on the go who are looking for that book club book."

As tensions about travel mount once more in the wake of the bombings in London, airport booksellers continue to seek out the right mix of books to feed traffic made up of almost equal parts business and leisure travelers. With an average dwell time (or total time in the airport) of 103 minutes, some airports are even asking specialty booksellers to add comfy chairs for customers to relax.


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