Sales of travel books have been hurt by both the economy and the increased use of digital information by tourists, but two Los Angeles–area travel bookstores have adapted to changing times and have managed to hang on to their customer base. "Given the online competition, books are holding up well here," says Susan Hickman, who, along with her husband, Adrian Kalvinskas, has operated Distant Lands since 1989.
In addition to books, Distant Lands carries deluxe luggage, which accounts for 10% of the store's sales; travel-friendly clothing generates about 8% of store sales; books and accessories make up the rest. Hickman names Eyewitness Travel Guides, Frommer's, Rough Guides, and Lonely Planet as among the store's most popular travel books, and she has added more travel narratives and unusual titles to the inventory.
Distant Lands, which has 7,000 square feet of retail space in the heart of Old Town Pasadena, recently contracted with Rail Europe to sell Eurail passes in the store, which has helped offset the negative effects of the economic downturn. "We're seeing a lot of new customers in the store because of this," Hickman says. "We had to convince Rail Europe to give us a contract, because we're not travel agents, but we've already far exceeded their expectations and they've increased our commission rate accordingly." She and Kalvinskas are inveterate travelers, and Distant Lands rents space in the store to American Express Travel, another strategy that has succeeded in increasing overall sales.
Natalie Compagno and Greg Freitas bought West Hollywood's Traveler's Bookcase in 2007 from its previous longtime owner, Priscilla Ulene, who was retiring. As part of a broader facelift to the store, they've added eye-catching literary travel quotations that are stenciled on the store's walls. "I've followed Priscilla's model, but we've beefed up the children's section because there are lots of young parents in the neighborhood," Compagno says, "and the gift table really reflects my personality now." A collection of mysteries set around the world is displayed at the front of the store, and Traveler's Bookcase has also added books that don't necessarily carry a travel theme but meet the clientele's interest, such as 50 Years of Protest and Independent Record Labels. A glass case with handcrafted jewelry sits by the cash register, and unusual playing cards, designer water bottles, and travel games and puzzles are scattered throughout the 1,000-square-foot store. Compagno also creates custom gift baskets for her customers that include an assortment of books, maps, and accessories.
In addition to bestsellers, Traveler's Bookcase imports the Love Guides from India, Le Cool Guides from Barcelona, and A La Carte maps from Switzerland. "We've learned a lot from the people who shop here since we've taken over," says Freitas, "and try to stock to their tastes." Because Los Angeles is more recession-proof than many other parts of the country when it comes to travel, sales at Traveler's Bookcase are holding their own, Freitas says. "What's changed is that people are going to less expensive places," he adds. "Central and South America are favorites these days."
To broaden Traveler's Bookcase's appeal, the couple has created an eclectic calendar of book events, including a night of L.A.-themed poetry, a Vietnamese cuisine book party, and a discussion about Islam with author Reza Aslan. Distant Lands features weekly narrated slide shows and travel seminars given by such experts as author Rick Steves. Kalvinskas teaches a course called "Know Before You Go," and a discussion about train travel is led by Hickman on a regular basis.
Digital books haven't had much of an impact on either bookstore, and neither one is offering downloads on its Web site. "Philosophically, I don't have a quarrel with e-books," says Hickman, at Distant Lands, "but there are definitely advantages to paper books for travelers. They're more convenient, and also some of our most popular travel guides, like Lonely Planet, aren't available electronically yet." At Traveler's Bookcase it's not uncommon for customers to come in and buy paper books after they've read them on a Kindle. "Travel and books go hand in hand, and the Kindle just isn't user-friendly for guidebooks," maintains Compagno. "Books are like art, and they can bring trips back to life for people long after they've returned home."