Transportation centers jumped on the "shop local" bandwagon decades ago. In 1979, Renaissance Book Shop opened what may have been the first used independent bookstore at an airport at General Mitchell International Airport in Milwaukee, Wis.; Powell's Books followed suit nine years later at Portland (Ore.) International Airport. More recently, airport and travel plaza store operators have been embracing the shop local movement as requests for local book-related RFPs continue to proliferate. The Paradies Shops now has 10 local-concept bookstores, in addition to nine Heritage Booksellers and eight New York Times Bookstores. Miami-based Areas USA introduced its first bookstore in the Miami airport by partnering with longtime Miami bookseller Books & Books in 2008, then used it as a model for six locally oriented bookstores in Atlanta. And Hudson Group, the largest airport bookseller in terms of sales and the number of stores selling books (400), continues to add to its indie partnerships with four Tattered Cover stores and a combination Tattered Cover/Hudson Newsstand slated to open in Denver by February 2014.
Smaller operators, too, are striving for more of an indie hue. "We're trying to take an indie sensibility to a transportation center," says Faber, Coe & Gregg's book manager, Ronald Rice, who moved to the company earlier this year after writing the book on indies as editor of My Bookstore (Black Dog & Leventhal). "While we certainly carry all of the popular bestsellers, a customer is just as likely to find whole table stacks of titles from Europa, Other Press, and Red Lemonade as they are to find Vintage or Viking Penguin."
Faber has also become more aggressive about hiring well-read staff, supporting the Indie Next list and using indie shelf talkers. It's also selling many similar types of books, particularly crossover YA. In fact, YA has become so popular that Faber doubled the size of its YA section in one of its 50-plus stores and is growing it in other locations. "A surprising number of adults, are not only looking for a good, contemporary story, they are looking for life guidelines and wisdom from authors such as Libba Bray, Gayle Foreman, and Jay Asher," says Rice.
Transportation centers are feeling a similar pinch in sales from e-books as local independents. "Books has certainly been a category of significance for us, but it's eroded," says Faber senior v-p Roberta Rubin, who feels the pressure from passengers who travel with e-readers as well as those who entertain themselves with iPhones, iPads, and tablets between flights or waiting to board. In the not too distant past, travelers would buy food, magazines, and books to while away that time. Faber will begin rebranding its bookstores early next summer and is developing an indie-style social media campaign to spread the word.
Although Rubin says that at Faber book sales have started to reverse themselves since March, others, like Xavier Rabell, CEO of six-year-old Areas USA, a subsidiary of Spain's Areas, are continuing to see book sales slide. "We see a lot of pressure from e-books," Rabell says. "For the last two years, we have consistently seen sales go down." To counter that, he tries to balance books and signings by local authors with bestsellers at Areas's seven bookstores. "It attracts people, and it's good for authors. It's a win-win." Even so, he adds, "I won't say we're trying to reinvent ourselves. We still believe there's opportunity in the traditional [airport] bookstore model. We have to find different formats and combine them with something else." Currently that translates into book-and-coffee venues.
Paradies is definitely selling books, according to marketing and communications director Jill Nidiffer. "One of the things that has helped us," she says, "is that there are still times when you can't use your Nook, Kindle, or iPad. People have the opportunity to use their old-fashioned book or magazine. I travel quite a bit, and I see people with books and people who are multitasking." Although Paradies is doing well with bestsellers like Fifty Shades of Grey, the Atlanta-based retailer has not benefited significantly from the children's book boom. Nidiffer attributes that to the fact that many parents prefer to entertain their kids with word games, puzzles, and activity books when they travel.
Still, a high percentage of the customers who support its bookstores, which continue to grow with the recent awarding of a ninth New York Times Bookstore at the Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport, value the 10-year-old Read and Return program. "Hundreds of loyal patrons have enjoyed the ability to read a book, return it, and receive 50% of the purchase price paid back to them," says Nidiffer, who sees it as a marketing hook for both customers and airports and a way to differentiate Paradies from other retailers.
Despite the proliferation of e-reading, Nidiffer doesn't see opportunity in e-readers per se. Defined-use clauses, she points out, prohibit the store from getting into the sale of e-reading devices at many airports. Accessories are a different matter. "People don't buy phones in an airport," she says. "But we have seen a rising demand for electronic accessories."
Stores may not be capturing the same percentage of sales relative to traffic, but book sales are up over 2011 at Hudson. "Reading is still the second most popular category at Hudson, after water and food," says Sara Hinckley, v-p of book buying and promotions. Sounding very much like an independent touting what it does best, aiding discoverability, she adds, "Creating awareness for books that people might not buy in our stores has always been a significant part of our business."
In addition to its 70 Hudson Booksellers, the retailer partners directly with independents. Besides Tattered Cover, it works with Barbara's Bookstore (Chicago), Vroman's Bookstore (Pasadena, Calif.), Warwick's (La Jolla, Calif.), and Bookworks (Albuquerque, N.Mex.). "I like to think of our stores as the travelerslocal bookstore," says Hinckley. "By featuring these stores, we are bringing a meaningful introduction to the local culture into the airports, strengthening our assortment, and driving traffic to the original location."
Hinckley sees Hudson's value as extending beyond discounting through buy two–get one promotions or gift with purchase. "If I could get one message across to our customers," she says, "it would be that we are not just some big corporate entity that doesn't need their loyalty. We are a handful of booksellers who love their jobs and are committed to working one-on-one with travelers to help them connect to great books."
Just like Main Street and mall booksellers, transportation stores have benefited from Borders's departure. "As soon as Borders closed, business turned around," says Craig Newman, president of Penn Concessions, which has two Penn Bookstores belowground in the New York City train station. "It's the resurgence of indie bookstores." Sales at Newman's stores gained traction this year from a familiar trio: Fifty Shades of Grey, The Hunger Games, and Bared to You. Penn supplements book sales with sidelines, like lottery tickets.
At Compass Books, the two San Francisco International Airport stores owned and operated by 160-year-old Books Inc., book sales continue to be "robust," says president Michael Tucker. "There's been no precipitous drop in anything. Specialty magazines are actually thriving, and there are new ones coming out all the time." The biggest impediment he sees to independents moving into transportation centers is cost. "It's as expensive as ever," says Tucker. "The rates for leasing, bonding issues, and payroll are high." Unlike many airport bookstores, which typically range from 700 to 1,000 sq. ft., Books Inc.'s stores are the size of a small, general interest bookstore, 3,000 sq. ft. The company's other stores are slightly larger, closer to 4,000 sq. ft.
For Tucker, the airport functions as a portal to the city and gives Compass Books' customers a taste of Books Inc.'s other stores. Because turns at the airport are much higher, closer to what he describes as "an agitation cycle," he's able to use the airport stores as a test for how a new book "and soon e-reader" will work elsewhere in Books Inc. Compass Books will be one of the few U.S. transportation stores to sell Kobo devices.