Throughout 2020 and early 2021, travel hub retailer the Hudson Group—best known for selling books in U.S. airports under a variety of brands, including Hudson, Hudson News, Hudson Booksellers, and Ink by Hudson—was hit hard by the pandemic, as air travel nearly ground to a halt. Travelers started returning to airports in the summer, after vaccinations became widespread, and holiday travel has been heavy, with passenger numbers nearing those from 2019.

PW recently checked in with Sara Hinckley, Hudson’s senior v-p of books, to discuss how Hudson’s book business has been faring.

How many Hudson-branded stores are currently open?

Answering that is not as easy as it sounds! Our open store list changes almost daily. We are currently selling books in approximately 425 stores, and of those, we would define approximately 50 as bookstores.

How is the books segment in the stores doing now that people have returned to traveling? How does this compare with a year ago?

We have come a long way, but we still have a long way to go. Traffic has been very strong and growing since about February, but I am really thrilled about the return of international travel, since that’s a particularly good demographic for book sales.

As the staffing situation improves throughout the entire travel industry, including at Hudson, our book and bookstore sales should improve a lot more as well. People will have more time to browse, and our teams can further ensure the selection, merchandising, and operational standards that Hudson has always been known for and distinguished by. Hudson has also implemented a new enterprise resource management system and other back-end processes, as well as a number of exciting in-store digital initiatives, which make all of that possible. And the good news is that traveler demand for books overall remains strong.

How does Hudson’s approach to bookselling differ from traditional bookselling?

Our customers come from around the world. Some of them buy books every day, others may only buy a book for their flight to the beach. Browsing our stores while waiting to board can be entertainment, a convenience, or even the only physical opportunity to buy books in their daily routine. Our business is also closely tied to daily passenger levels. Hudson’s specific bookselling model depends both on a small, and pretty fabulous, national book team, and on pretty fabulous booksellers—many whom our regular customers ask for by name—in every airport.

We work with and are inspired by independent booksellers and are members of the American Booksellers Association, even though we are not independent. Hudson is part of the international travel retailer Dufry, which provides us with global support and scale, and enables us to deliver a consistent mission across North America. Our stores are small, and anything we carry stands out. This enables Hudson to play an outsize role in discovery—a privilege that we never take for granted.

All of this is to say that, just like any other bookseller, we have a lot of unique challenges and opportunities, and we spend every day turning our love for books and readers into the best stores we can, evolving all the time.

Over the past several years, the group has worked to make stores reflect local and regional tastes. How has that project progressed?

Every one of our bookstore assortments has always been unique and localized. However, we do expand on that localized element both in our proprietary Ink brand and in the indie-branded stores, which perform comparably well. We will continue to move forward with both concepts, based on the needs of the individual locations. We are also adding multiple independent bookstore features within some of our stores, in addition to more of the truly iconic bookstores that we have been fortunate enough to represent. These include several notable partnerships, including those with Book Soup [in Los Angeles], Barbara’s Bookstore [in Chicago], Warwick’s [in San Diego, Calif.], Tattered Cover Book Store [in Denver], McNally Jackson [in New York City], Elliott Bay Book Company [in Seattle], and two Vroman’s Boutiques Plus [in Los Angeles]—it will more broadly showcase the overall literary community in our cities.

Are you seeing any shift in buying trends? With the decline in business travel, have you adjusted your product mix?

It’s hard to assess any definitive trends, because there are too many variables. But throughout most of the last two years, there seems to be more demand for lighter titles. Self-care has done well also. We are still selling a fair amount of business books, if not as many as usual. We think that’s because business people are still doing some traveling, even if primarily for personal reasons.

That said, Hudson does not intend to make any permanent shifts in the product mix based on recent trends. We’ll continue to experiment, share the titles that we believe deserve attention, and respond to customer demand.

What is the outlook for the coming year? Did you close stores last year? Are there any you plan to reopen, or open as new locations?

A few bookstore contracts expire every year in the normal course of business, but we continue to bid for new stores through RFPs [requests for proposals], so we have quite a few scheduled to open in the next year or two, including branches of Parnassus in Nashville and Green Apple in San Francisco. Book space in our convenience stores is also a critical piece for growth. Our bookstore count and space in the convenience stores are both down from 2018–2019, but we have some current initiatives that will hopefully bring us back to those levels and beyond. Everyone on our book team at Hudson does all that they can to provide the concepts, selection, and service that will resonate with the traveler. But in the end, Hudson really is the “traveler’s best friend.” We offer customers what they want, whether it is Apple AirPods, Smartwater, Cheez-Its, or, I hope, books.

You have championed some smaller presses and more esoteric titles—ones with more of an indie feel than one might expect in airports. How has the public reacted?

We believe very strongly in a diverse and representative assortment, even in our convenience stores that might only have a single bay of books. We try to pick the best books by everyone, for everyone, considering ethnicity, nationality, age, gender, and interests. We make a particular effort to include small and university presses, and small-print-run titles and backlist from the major publishers.

We expect our booksellers to choose and recommend titles for their stores. And we love it when all of these efforts result in a surprised customer. However, I don’t have a formal statistic to share regarding any individual titles or publishers. I’m not expecting poetry, for instance, to pay its way, although it’s a growing category these days. Rather, I think that Hudson’s overall relevance and performance as a bookseller is tied to this approach.