Though many general bookstores around the country are cautiously optimistic about a return to normalcy after the events of September 11, travel specialty stores from California to New York have seen a drop in sales this fall ranging from 15%-50%. As Priscilla Ulene, owner of The Traveller's Bookcase in Los Angeles, gently put it, "Business has been really, really slow." Most significantly, travel booksellers have seen a huge drop in the "big international trips" that have traditionally been their bread and butter. Sandye Wexler, co-owner of The Savvy Traveller in Chicago, worries that "travel booksellers are becoming an endangered species."
National "Nesting" Trend Proves True
Book Passage in Corte Madera, Calif., operates a travel store that is adjacent to its large general bookstore. Co-owner Elaine Petrocelli admits that "the rest of the store is supporting the travel store right now." Kathryn Henderson, owner of World Traveller in Chapel Hill, N.C., agreed, adding that it's not so much a fear of flying, but rather that "people have been wanting to stay close to home." Sales at the nine-year-old store (which she is currently buying from the original owners) dropped 25% in September and October, and were flat in November. Considering she had experienced sales growth every month this year until September, the November figure is "actually a decrease."
Book sales at Travel Essentials in Ashland, Ore., were down 50% in October and 45% in November. Owner Bob Bestor said that "thankfully," market conditions in the town where his store is located (pop. 20,000) forced him to diversify his stock some years ago, so books and maps are now only about 20% of his business. At Wide World Books and Maps in Seattle, sales are down 25% across the board compared to last year's fall season. Owner Simone Andrus is taking the long view, saying she hopes to be able to wait it out. "People are still interested in the world, they just aren't actually travelling as much now," she said. The consensus is that even "safe" destinations like Europe have dropped off, as have Asia, Africa and Latin America. There has also been a nearly complete halt to travel in the Middle East and much of South Asia, as well as a significant drop in travel to Russia and Central Asia, which were hot destinations prior to September 11.
Travel booksellers across the country have noticed an enormous increase in the number of travelers choosing to drive to regional destinations or take shorter, more local trips with their families. From a book business point of view, that's not necessarily a good thing. John Bloebaum, manager of Powell's Travel Store in Portland Ore., said, "People are afraid to go too far afield--they are more likely to go to California or British Columbia than Italy." Though his store hasn't been as hard hit as some others, with sales off 10%-15% in October and November, he points out that people don't buy nearly as much for shorter local trips as they do for international ones. Travel bookstores tend to cater to the experienced and the curious traveler--a typical sale to someone traveling to Asia or Europe includes maps, multiple guidebooks, background reading, travel accessories and perhaps language materials. To make matters worse, travel gear and luggage sales have dropped even more than book sales.
Even big Rand McNally "saw a pretty significant drop in sales right after September 11," according to Scott Spenhoff, Rand McNally's v-p of retail. Since then his stores have seen a reasonable recovery in domestic guides and maps, but not in international travel material. The 28 stores, clustered in California, Chicago, Boston, New York and Philadelphia, among other cities, have benefited from a "retooling" in the early '90s that emphasized other travel-related products, such as money belts, games and gift items, and fewer books and maps. That product mix has proven to be a benefit in the last few months as sales of guidebooks have plummeted. Spenhoff said all the stores have noticed the trend toward drive vacations and shorter family travel.
Likewise, Rich McFall, owner of Travel Den Books & Maps in St. Louis, noted, "People seem to want to reconnect, to get away from the big cities. Customers are looking for meaningful travel."
The Economy Hasn't Helped, Either
For most stores, the terror attacks of September only accelerated a downturn that began last May and June, normally the two best months for the travel book business. Like many travel booksellers, Simone Andrus in Seattle noted that the travel business follows the economy very closely, and since many people had less discretionary income this year than last, she saw sales in her store start to flatten last June. "People started changing their types of travel--fewer big trips, fewer destinations, with less money.... September 11 has just emphasized all the weaknesses already in the economy," Andrus said, noting that Washington State has the highest unemployment in the country due to "the dot-bomb crash and Boeing layoffs."
Adjusting to the New Reality
Many of the stores interviewed for this article sent out electronic or traditional newsletters this fall that included a soft plea for support aimed at their regular customers. In Pasadena, Calif., Distant Lands sent out a double-size fall newsletter that featured a letter from founder and co-owner Adrian Kalvinskas. It read in part "...like many in the travel industry we have felt the impact of recent events and have had to scale back. You will not see our fall catalogue; instead we have produced this larger newsletter that includes many travel accessories and guidebook listings.... We ask you to continue to travel... and when you travel, we hope you will shop with us and will continue to include us in your travel plans." Priscilla Ulene of Traveller's Bookcase in Los Angeles wrote a letter to her customers asking them not to give in to their fears and describing her own successful trip to Ireland in October.
Most of these stores have trimmed staff hours over the last few months and have chosen not to replace staff members that have left. Distant Lands has done both, said manager Susan Hickman. "No way for us to hire new staff. We'll see where we are after January 1." In Seattle, Andrus of Wide World Books and Maps has tightened her inventory as much as possible and shortened work shifts for her staff of 11 mostly part-timers. Powell's Travel in Portland and Traveller's Bookcase in Los Angeles have both cut staff hours and left some vacancies unfilled.
It's Worse in the East
Some stores on the West Coast, though hard hit, feel they may be starting to recover. The second half of November saw slight increases in travel-buying there, and many booksellers report pretty good sales around Thanksgiving, though several also said sales slumped again right after the Thanksgiving weekend. They hope that the lure of relatively inexpensive gift items (not necessarily geared only toward those actually going on a trip) will bring shoppers into their stores and help salvage the fall season. Susan Hickman believes that customers are already starting to travel more, and the numbers at her store may prove her right; sales at Distant Lands were down 30% in September, 20% in October and 13% in November.
It's not so bright for some stores in the eastern part of the country. The Savvy Traveller in Chicago has experienced a downturn since November 2000, partly due to the general economy and partly due to street construction in front of the store. The events of September 11 simply led to a further decline in customers and deepened the drop in sales. In an attempt to counteract decreasing business, the store held a 15%-off sale during November, which co-owner Sandye Wexler credits with increasing that month's numbers to nearly the level they were a year before (which, she noted, was not a great month). Clearly, she can't sell at a discount all the time, plus, as she said, "If people aren't travelling, no amount of good will can change that." Now all Wexler, like most of the other booksellers PW interviewed, can do is hope that December sales will improve the outlook for the new year.
An improved outlook may arrive too late for some stores closer to where the terrorist attacks occurred. At New York City's Complete Traveller, "sales are down 40%" in the antiquarian part of the store, according to the New York Times. Worse yet, "sales of modern travel guides have dropped 75% to 80% from last year at this time." Co-owner Harriet Greenberg told the Times that she was shifting her inventory to "feature more coffee-table books and volumes of travel writing for the holidays." Referring to the possibility of closing the store, she admitted that if sales don't improve by Christmas "We'll really have to talk about it. You can't just stick your head in the sand." Travel Books and Language Center in Washington, D.C., closed its doors for good on November 30. (See News.)
Map wholesaler Omni Resources, located in Burlington, N.C., 60 miles from Raleigh, has also been particularly hit hard by the drop in travel. Owner Russell Guy is preparing to close his last retail store, Omni Shop, in January. He closed two other stores two years ago because of increasing competition from chain stores. Since the store is located in the front of his wholesale warehouse, Guy said that he'll probably still display some local maps for sale in the front windows, but added, "Nobody around here is buying." Sales at his wholesale travel business, which specializes in hard-to-find domestic and international maps, are down 75% this fall. "It's a disaster," he said, explaining that five years ago, he had 150 wholesale accounts all over the country; now he has 50, though only about 15 of those order steadily these days. "There are fewer independent stores, thus fewer outlets, and the rise of the big-box chains led to exclusive deals with larger book and map wholesalers," he told PW. "Now, because of September 11, some of the stores that are still around can't afford to order much anymore. If it wasn't for Internet sales and library orders, we'd be out of business."
What IS Selling in Travel Bookstores?
Travel booksellers report that Americans have a new preoccupation with parts of the world most of us never paid much attention to before September 11. At all the bookstores surveyed by PW, there has been a run on maps of Afghanistan this fall. Maps of the Caspian Sea region, Central Asia and Pakistan are also doing well. From Rand McNally to independents all over the country, there is unanimous agreement that the bestselling titles are world atlases, world maps and globes. Rich McFall of the Travel Den in St. Louis explains this phenomenon by saying, "America realizes it can't be isolationist anymore. We're all interconnected and we need to know where these places are and how we got to this position."
As if to emphasize that they aren't actually planning to travel themselves, these days people are buying armchair travel books, such as Peter Hopkirk's The Great Game (Kodansha), books by Bill Bryson (for those looking for humorous, escapist reading) and Mary Taylor Simeti's Travels with a Medieval Queen (FSG). Other titles mentioned include Tony Horowitz's Baghdad Without a Map (Plume), Karen Armstrong's Battle for God (Ballantine) and Geraldine Brooks's Nine Parts of Desire (Anchor Books). A recent book that promises to do well is the new paperback edition of Jason Elliott's An Unexpected Light: Travels in Afghanistan (Picador).
On the lighter side, booksellers laugh as they find themselves saying that the books now topping their bestseller lists are Robert Young Pelton's The World's Most Dangerous Places (Harper) and Worst Case Scenario Handbook by Josh Piven (original and travel edition, Chronicle Books). But then again, booksellers have to have a healthy sense of irony, especially these days.
An Uncertain Future
The big question on everyone's mind is: When will the travel industry, and thus the travel book business, start to turn around? Most booksellers said they can wait it out, up to a point. Hickman of Distant Lands said she is "optimistic that things will pick up in the spring" as people "adjust to what is a realistic fear and what isn't." Simone Andrus of Wide World Books and Maps said her store's lease isn't up for two years, so she believes, "If things improve over the next six months, we'll be okay." If it's longer than that, she continued, "we'll have to decide whether we can hang on." That timetable is typical of most if not all, of these travel booksellers.
Unless, as many said during these interviews, "something else happens."