The Latest Chapter in Finding a Vacay Read

It's an adventure in book selling at this Canadian airport.

5 mins read
Portrait of a young woman relaxing on the beach, reading a book

Some emerging stories continue to stick in our collective craw, including our reporting on May 16, rhetorically asking “Are Bookstores Necessary?

Publishers Weekly reported in January 2024 news that we still find sobering. In 2023, adult nonfiction, which is the largest print segment, declined by a modest 3.1 percent, which in fact is a righteous rally over 2022’s numbers (Weak = “Yay?”).

Why? The category was boosted by two celeb memoirs: “Spare” by Prince Harry and “The Woman in Me” by Britney Spears. The other two categories that saw a bump are religion (6.4 percent increase) and travel (an increase of 3.8 percent.)

These books are not great literature, but they certainly qualify as summer reading. Many titles along these lines show up in airport newsstands and snack bars. These are the most disposable books of the calendar year. We don’t really care if they get dropped in the pool, smeared with sunscreen, swept away by the tides, carried off by seagulls or left behind in an Airbnb.

a book open on the beach
Photo: Adobe

Not to say they’re not entertaining, and in some cases, useful. But few make it into book clubs, or will linger in the memory enough to require a second reading.

The other big seasonal milestone for book-buyers is, of course, the December holiday season. Some of us consider a book to be the ultimate gift to receive, better by far than (yawn) another cashmere sweater or kitchen gadget. 

But books also serve as a neutral, politically correct gift for someone you don’t know, matched only by a scented candle in a jar as a non-offensive prezzie. When we’re non-plussed by receiving Odette in accounting, or Flynn, that hypertensive bully in Brand Marketing, as our “Secret Santa” recipient at work, a hardbound, oversized tome on the Impressionists is as safe as you can get, in a way that a cheap bottle of wine no longer is.

More than a card, less juvenile than a self-illuminating, battery-pack acrylic pullover in the Ugly Sweater category (one emblazed with “Dunder Mifflin” is a personal favorite, however), a glossy, coffee table tome is a classy escape.

This probably is the reason that hardcover sales fell only 1.6 per cent from last year’s numbers, a small drop heralded as a victory by booksellers. And, the book market being what it is, you can scoop these books up off the clearance table year-round, especially in summer. So stock up now.

These hardbacks are often gorgeous, and originally enter the market at a high price point. Their large format, solid binding, superior paper stock, fabulous photography and precise printing often indicate a book printed in Malaysiabut in spite of this, hardcover prices continue to climb. Shipping costs alone are part of the reason. Of course, if a reader buys only one or two of these books a year, the pain is minimal.

But here’s the thing. Those honkin’ big books of color images of the Grand Canyon or Degas’ weary ballerinas are not books that people really, actually read. They are gift books, sometimes gifted because you couldn’t think of anything else to give, and because the book was marked down from $89.00 to $29.99.

Along the lines of a throw-pillow embroidered with a tart Dorothy Parker quote, the big, shiny gift book serves as a design element of sort-of smart home décor.

Think back to your university days. Top Ramen in the microwave. Cold pizza for breakfast. Sleeping away many a Sunday afternoon. And beside the bed, perhaps a hipster-esque mattress on the floor, stacks of what are called, rather disparagingly, trade paperbacks. 

People in general just aren’t buying books, period, and many of us have snarfed up a few bestsellers there at half-price because we didn’t want to risk $30 on something which might be meh.

These aren’t just paperbacks: they are low-end paperbacks. Low-end in the sense of their size, print quality, binding, paper stock. The pages get loose.  The covers detach themselves. But this isn’t simply because they’re cheaply made, and low priced; it’s because we read them again and again, because they’re often real books for real readers.

I continue to re-read my decades-old vintage copies of Nabokov’s “Lolita,”  Kesey’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” the collected short stories of John Cheever and Flannery O’Connor, and “The Nude” by Sir Kenneth Clark, even though the pages are fluttering from their flimsy bindings like the autumn leaves of long-ago freshman years. No matter, I know the texts so well that I can shuffle the chapters back into order by memory. 

So, it’s especially distressing to know that, according to Publishers Weekly, these sales of these mass market paperbacks of every genre fell by 15.6 per cent last year, and account for only 3.4 per cent of all units sold. This tells me that people aren’t actually reading books, and aren’t buying books intended to be read.

The New York Times recently reported that Costco, where tables of books of all sorts vie for space with monster bags of tube-socks, dishwasher pods by the thousands, and other non-perishables on a scale suitable for stocking the walk-in pantry in “The Shining,” will no longer sell books year-round beginning in 2025 after the coming Christmas season.

Elites may snark that truly literate people don’t buy their books at Costco. But, c’mon. People in general just aren’t buying books, period, and many of us have snarfed up a few bestsellers there at half-price because we didn’t want to risk $30 on something which might be meh.

But perhaps airport booksellers, of all places, offer a ray of hope. Passing through Montréal’s Pierre Elliot Trudeau International Airport last week, in desperate search of aspirin or ibuprofen, we spied gleaming rows of books marked “Lisez et retournez”—“Read & Return.” Buy it, read it, return it, and receive a 50 percent refund.

Not only is the savings tempting, but this offer also relieves the tidy, space-conscious reader of the aforementioned stacks of books beside the bed.  Oh-la-la!

books on a shelf at an airport bookstore
In tune with our times, an airport book purchase can be the equivalent of a summer fling. Photo: Victoria Thomas

Just imagining the cost of the Vroman’s Hastings Ranch lease gives us shpilkes. Tuesday Morning couldn’t cut it there. Neither could Daphne’s Greek Kitchen, our only source for avgolemono this side of Cyprus.

And Sears, or Bed, Bath & Beyond? Buh-bye.

We’ve been snippy in our critique of bookstores stocking tote-bags with sassy literary sayings instead of the source literature, i.e. books.  But sobered, God forbid, by world events, perhaps airports are the unlikely holder of a possible key to the survival of book sales.

Is the recent tragic shuttering of the Vroman’s Hastings Ranch location a cautionary tale in the following sense: Rather than position bookstores as a sort of earnest, secular cathedral to literacy, are we better off to view reading materials as just another commodity fighting for market share?  

The airport kiosk lures us in with overpriced bottles of precious water, Skittles, inflatable neck-pillows, and souvenir pot-holders…and, oh, why not pick up a random copy of “How to Be Old: Lessons in Living Boldly from the Accidental Icon” for that dreaded layover in Minsk, Pinsk, or Poughkeepsie?  

We say, read on, wherever you can.

The short URL of this article is: https://localnewspasadena.com/44mc

Victoria Thomas

Victoria has been a journalist since her college years when she wrote for Rolling Stone and CREEM. Victoria describes the view of Mt. Wilson from her front step as “staggering,” and she is a defender of peacocks everywhere.
Email: [email protected]

2 Comments

  1. Thirty-five years ago, National Airport (now Reagan National) had an excellent bookstore. I know I bought Aksyonov’s The Burn there, and probably Kingsley Amis’s The Old Devils as well. (I assume that the Bs on were well represented, too.) It’s gone now, and the pickings at DCA are slim. Milwaukee had a fine used bookstore, and may still. The last book I distinctly remember buying at an airport was Les Miserables at Heathrow, which was nicely sized for a transatlantic flight. Considering the strung out, jet-lagged condition of passengers, I suppose that airport bookstores do well not to stock the heaviest reading.

    I don’t dismiss the notion of getting books at Costco. I have read two or three of Anthony Powell’s multivolume Dance to the Music of Time series, and the first one I bought at the Target in Lakewood, Colorado. Likewise my first dip into Didion was at a department store, probably the Woolco in Wheatridge.

    “Odette in Accounting” could be a chapter in Proust’s In Search of Lost Assets. Now, that would be a book to keep an MBA hooked across or between continents.

  2. Yes. Thank you for the reading. All I can say at this late date is “Spare. The Woman in Me,” pairing the nation’s most dismal, yet popular, titles.

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