San Francisco International Airport has four dedicated bookstores -- that is, shops devoted primarily to books, rather than the many newsstands, gift stores, and tchotchke bazaars that sell titles as an aside, next to the toothpaste and "I Love SF" sweat shirts. There's a Compass Books, two Simply Books outlets, and a WHSmith Booksellers. Two of them (WHSmith and one of the Simply Books storefronts) are accessible pre-security; only people with a ticket can visit the other two. None of the shops could be called a destination -- I certainly wouldn't make a special effort to visit any of them (if I weren't writing this column, that is) -- but Compass Books comes closest.
Your average airport bookshop is a glorified supermarket book section, with limited offerings and vague displays, and most of those at SFO fit the bill. This isn't so surprising when you consider that they're chain stores, though Compass Books' parent is an independent chain (more about that later).
Chain or no, however, it would be silly to expect an airport bookstore to be the same as a store outside; they have limitations that regular shops don't. All concessions -- including restaurants, gift shops, and bookstores -- have to apply to run their franchises in the airport, and the bidding and selection process is fairly involved, with a lot of back-and-forth before the Airport Commission awards a lease. Space restrictions mean they simply can't be as comprehensive in their selections as a street-side storefront (think of the soaring rooms in Stacey's or A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books). And they have a captive audience -- not folks wandering in off the street while taking a pleasant stroll -- which sounds great but means they can't have things like author readings or sales to draw crowds in. They just have to count on airport traffic.
Still, these stores could be so much better. They could be organized more clearly. The displays could be labeled in ways that make sense. There could be more recommendations for individual books (whether from employees or outside sources, like the New York Times). Each store could have a computer system that lets workers look up individual titles. The atmosphere could be made less sterile. Shops could add a bag check -- a place to drop luggage while you browse. In short, without spending a lot of money, airport bookstore owners could make their shops more appealing to the kind of folks who normally go to bookstores, and easier to use for those who don't. To my mind, this effort would translate into higher sales, and a shopping experience that's a hell of a lot more pleasant.
SFO houses 49 airlines, comprises over a million square feet, and welcomes more than 30 million passengers each year through its automatic doors (nearly 3 million in July alone). Judging by the state of its bookstores, though, a very small percentage of those travelers must need books: The shops aren't well stocked, and if you want to find something specific -- rather than browsing in the hope of finding something interesting -- you're often SOL.
WHSmith Booksellers, down by the BART station in the International Terminal's Main Hall (past the glittering display of Louis Comfort Tiffany glassworks), shares its space with the Boulé Café. I found the selection in the cafe more enticing than that of the store -- and easier to figure out. Tables of hardcovers mix fiction and nonfiction in no particular order: Maxine Hong Kingston next to Hillary Rodham Clinton (or are they both fiction?), Ronald Reagan's book of letters next to Mark Salzman's latest novel next to a memoir by Yogi Berra. One section is called "General Interests," covering, uh, we're not sure: Noam Chomsky, Alan Dershowitz, Michael Moore, Matt Ridley. You tell me. Signs on some displays read "Your Passport to great reading," perhaps a reference to some sort of preferred-buyer program that's not explained anywhere, not even on the Web site of the U.K.-based chain, which (the site does tell us) includes 1,464 stores worldwide staffed by 30,747 employees in 12 countries. The only good thing about the place is its handful of thoughtful fiction recommendation cards, apparently written by the manager ("Because he read it!" as the woman behind the counter reminded me).
The Simply Books you can get to without a plane ticket, in Terminal 1 near Boarding Areas B and C, isn't as confusing as WHSmith, but it's still pretty vacuous. Pale blond-wood displays and bizarre recommendations from "Melalyn" (The Kennedy Curse, The Thin Pink Line) and "Nancy" (The Nanny Diaries, I Hate This Place) lend a generic feel; of course, Simply Books is owned by the huge concessions conglomerate HMS Host, so a certain level of corporate banality is to be expected. Some of the sections are thoughtfully labeled: "Health & Wellness," "Regional Interest," "Adult Reading" (101 Nights of Grrreat Sex -- the only section of its kind in any SFO bookstore). Others are pretty vague: They've got "Famous Authors," "Classics," "New Releases," "Best Sellers," and "Fiction." Let's see ... where would The Lovely Bones be? I did like the big clock, though, so you know when to leave.
The other Simply Books, past security near Gate 83 in Terminal 3, is simply pathetic. There's no other word for it. The big clock is still there (though the recommendations are now from "Diana" and "Linda") and the company has added a comfy chair, a lamp, and literary quotes all around the walls, but the selection is minuscule and the organization nonexistent. I asked at the counter for a specific science book and was told the science books were "mixed in" with the others; the clerk couldn't even look up whether the store carried the book, because "the computer doesn't do that." But I did love the copy of the "Real Me Only God Can See" diary, with its lavender chenille cover.
Compass Books is by far the coolest bookstore at SFO, which may not be saying much. It covers a whole corner just past the United Security check, near Gate 71 in Terminal 3. Its dark wood shelves are crammed with titles, organized logically and appealingly; its workers helped me find a book (though it was clear that the system was a little confusing to them). Its theme appears to be Leonardo da Vinci, whose sketches fill the walls; there are telescopes and flying contraptions and concentric globes all over the place. The Web site of its parent company, Books Inc. ("The west's oldest independent bookstore"), states, "Without a mug or T-shirt in sight, Compass Books Inc. in the North Terminal of San Francisco Airport is one of the few credible airport bookstores in the world" -- and I have to agree. Books Inc. is a worker-owned chain of nine stores (including an outlet), all in the Bay Area except one in Anaheim. If you have to buy a book at SFO, go here; it'll be worth the travel time to get there.
As good as Compass is, though, it's still an airport bookstore, with all of its limitations. I got the feeling that half the people there were nonreaders, and without recommendations they had no idea what to buy; they were looking at the books as if they were artifacts, like those displays of picture frames made of gum wrappers that you pass on the moving walkway. The aisles were crowded by people with enormous overstuffed roll-aboards trying to get past me in a hurry; a bag check would have been so handy. The counter workers, pleasant as they are, know little about books, in my experience; on my visit, they were like refugees from the Transportation Security Administration, whispering to each other about my choices. They could have used help from a quick, thorough computer system on which they'd been trained well. If shops like Compass want more folks to buy than just kill time, they'll have to look outside those automatic doors for inspiration.