Ticket to Read

Must airport bookstores be so lousy?

There's nothing more desperate than the prospect of a long flight with nothing to read. Sure, some of the in-flight magazines (United's Hemispheres, Delta's Sky, Southwest's Spirit) might hold me for an hour or so, but after a while stories like "Soccer-Crazy in Virginia" and "Terminal Bliss: Incheon, South Korea" leave me itchy. I need something meatier -- a tale that takes me longer than 15 minutes to peruse, characters that live with me after the trip is over. A good airport bookstore should be just the ticket.

San Francisco International Airport has four dedicated bookstores -- that is, shops devoted primarily to books, rather than the many newsstands, gift stores, and tchotchke bazaars that sell titles as an aside, next to the toothpaste and "I Love SF" sweat shirts. There's a Compass Books, two Simply Books outlets, and a WHSmith Booksellers. Two of them (WHSmith and one of the Simply Books storefronts) are accessible pre-security; only people with a ticket can visit the other two. None of the shops could be called a destination -- I certainly wouldn't make a special effort to visit any of them (if I weren't writing this column, that is) -- but Compass Books comes closest.

Your average airport bookshop is a glorified supermarket book section, with limited offerings and vague displays, and most of those at SFO fit the bill. This isn't so surprising when you consider that they're chain stores, though Compass Books' parent is an independent chain (more about that later).

The new SFO.
Alain McLaughlin
The new SFO.

Chain or no, however, it would be silly to expect an airport bookstore to be the same as a store outside; they have limitations that regular shops don't. All concessions -- including restaurants, gift shops, and bookstores -- have to apply to run their franchises in the airport, and the bidding and selection process is fairly involved, with a lot of back-and-forth before the Airport Commission awards a lease. Space restrictions mean they simply can't be as comprehensive in their selections as a street-side storefront (think of the soaring rooms in Stacey's or A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books). And they have a captive audience -- not folks wandering in off the street while taking a pleasant stroll -- which sounds great but means they can't have things like author readings or sales to draw crowds in. They just have to count on airport traffic.

Still, these stores could be so much better. They could be organized more clearly. The displays could be labeled in ways that make sense. There could be more recommendations for individual books (whether from employees or outside sources, like the New York Times). Each store could have a computer system that lets workers look up individual titles. The atmosphere could be made less sterile. Shops could add a bag check -- a place to drop luggage while you browse. In short, without spending a lot of money, airport bookstore owners could make their shops more appealing to the kind of folks who normally go to bookstores, and easier to use for those who don't. To my mind, this effort would translate into higher sales, and a shopping experience that's a hell of a lot more pleasant.

SFO houses 49 airlines, comprises over a million square feet, and welcomes more than 30 million passengers each year through its automatic doors (nearly 3 million in July alone). Judging by the state of its bookstores, though, a very small percentage of those travelers must need books: The shops aren't well stocked, and if you want to find something specific -- rather than browsing in the hope of finding something interesting -- you're often SOL.

WHSmith Booksellers, down by the BART station in the International Terminal's Main Hall (past the glittering display of Louis Comfort Tiffany glassworks), shares its space with the Boulé Café. I found the selection in the cafe more enticing than that of the store -- and easier to figure out. Tables of hardcovers mix fiction and nonfiction in no particular order: Maxine Hong Kingston next to Hillary Rodham Clinton (or are they both fiction?), Ronald Reagan's book of letters next to Mark Salzman's latest novel next to a memoir by Yogi Berra. One section is called "General Interests," covering, uh, we're not sure: Noam Chomsky, Alan Dershowitz, Michael Moore, Matt Ridley. You tell me. Signs on some displays read "Your Passport to great reading," perhaps a reference to some sort of preferred-buyer program that's not explained anywhere, not even on the Web site of the U.K.-based chain, which (the site does tell us) includes 1,464 stores worldwide staffed by 30,747 employees in 12 countries. The only good thing about the place is its handful of thoughtful fiction recommendation cards, apparently written by the manager ("Because he read it!" as the woman behind the counter reminded me).

The Simply Books you can get to without a plane ticket, in Terminal 1 near Boarding Areas B and C, isn't as confusing as WHSmith, but it's still pretty vacuous. Pale blond-wood displays and bizarre recommendations from "Melalyn" (The Kennedy Curse, The Thin Pink Line) and "Nancy" (The Nanny Diaries, I Hate This Place) lend a generic feel; of course, Simply Books is owned by the huge concessions conglomerate HMS Host, so a certain level of corporate banality is to be expected. Some of the sections are thoughtfully labeled: "Health & Wellness," "Regional Interest," "Adult Reading" (101 Nights of Grrreat Sex -- the only section of its kind in any SFO bookstore). Others are pretty vague: They've got "Famous Authors," "Classics," "New Releases," "Best Sellers," and "Fiction." Let's see ... where would The Lovely Bones be? I did like the big clock, though, so you know when to leave.

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