As airports look for ways to distinguish their retail operations by giving them a local flavor, more are forming partnerships with regional booksellers. Books & Books in Coral Gables, Fla., was recently awarded its first airport store in Miami in conjunction with airport operator Areas USA, while Barbara's Bestsellers in Chicago significantly expanded its airport presence, from one store to six, through an arrangement with Hudson.

“We started experimenting in bringing in regionality over seven years ago with Sam Weller's in Salt Lake City,” said Joan Ryzner, senior v-p of retail operations at HMSHost, which has sales in excess of $2.6 billion. “Regionality is another way for us to communicate a sense of place, which is very important in an airport environment.” Since then Host, which operates 23 bookstores under its Simply Books and Author's Bookstore brands, has developed a variety of ways to give its stores the local touch.

In 2005, Host worked with long-time Twin Cities children's specialty bookseller the Red Balloon to create a children's store-within-a-store at the Author's Bookstore in the Minneapolis—St. Paul International Airport. “It has not been a big money-maker for us,” said the Red Balloon co-owner Carol Erdahl. “But it's certainly raised our image.”

From Host's standpoint, the agreement has been a success and boosted sales, especially for YA titles. Now it is looking to do more with independent booksellers and will open a similar store-within-a-store with Hicklebee's Children's Books late next year at the Mineta San Jose International Airport. At the Oakland International Airport, Cody's Books is working with Host on book selection to give the airport's Bayfront Books store, set to open in early 2009, a more distinctive, literary cast.

With the exception of the six Barbara's Bookstores at O'Hare that it co-owns, the Hudson Group brands all 70 of its bookstores and bookshelves at roughly 300 newsstands under its own name, Hudson Booksellers. Although it had hoped to inject local flavor in many of its stores through a much publicized branding agreement with Rueben Martínez, owner of Librería Martínez Books and Art Gallery in Santa Ana, Calif., that did not work out. According to Sara Hinckley, v-p of book purchasing and promotions at Hudson, issues with Martínez's core bookstore business forced the company to put the concept on hold.

However, a similar arrangement with Marva Allen and Rita Ewing, owners of Hue-Man Bookstore and Cafe in New York City, to beef up Hudson's African-American selections launched at the beginning of the year. Scaled back because of logistical challenges on both sides, Hue-Man provides shelf-talkers for five titles (rather than managing sections) for Hudson. Currently Hue-Man's monthly recommendations are featured in 100 stores, and Hinckley plans to roll it out to more in the near future.

Hudson, which was given an infusion of cash in March when the Boston-based private equity firm Advent International purchased a majority stake, could be well positioned to add mall bookstore flavor through acquisitions. Some industry-watchers note that it is well positioned to acquire the Borders Group's approximately two dozen airport stores, if they are spun off. Borders, scheduled to open a 1,734-sq.-ft. combined bookstore and Paperchase gift and stationery store at JetBlue Airways Terminal 5 at JFK in September, declined to comment on a possible sale. Hinckley noted simply, “We are looking to grow aggressively.”

Atlanta-based the Paradies Shops, which sells books at 275 newsstands and 21 bookstores, continues to strengthen its relationship with the New York Times, said Bobbi Passavanti, managing director of marketing and communications. It will add four more stores in the coming year—in Jacksonville and West Palm Beach, Fla.; Providence, R.I.; and Hartford, Conn. In addition, it recently provided a taste of Spokane, Wash., at Spokane International Airport through a partnership with local bookseller Annie's Books last year.

Like all retailers, airport booksellers face challenges from a tough economy, but they seem to be flourishing in comparison with many Main Street booksellers. Hudson did nearly $100 million in book sales last year. At Paradies, said Passavanti, book sales rose 20%—25%, depending on the market. Host's business was up “way over” 3% on a comp-store basis, according to Ryzner.

Barbara's Bookstore owner Don Barliant is even more upbeat, after closing his store at LaGuardia last year and adding six new ones in Chicago. “I feel blessed,” he said. “Airport stores are profitable. It's not unthinkable that you're going to turn your inventory once a month. [Going into airports] is a trend we really should encourage. It makes our neighborhood stores healthier.”