AUSTIN, Texas -- Surrounded by floor-to-ceiling magazines and the latest paperbacks, Steve Staton sits on a wooden bench and pages through an issue of Gulf Coast Fisherman. Staton could be at a bookstore, instead he's in the middle of an H.E. Butt Grocery Co. supermarket.
It's San Antonio-based H-E-B's largest book section to date at a new store in the Austin suburb of Round Rock. Designed to have a specialty bookstore feel, the 400-square-foot section, containing magazines, newspapers, paperbacks and children's books, draws shopper traffic with a bright "Newsstand" neon sign. It is fitted with benches, wooden shelves, track lighting and plants.
Staton says he often comes to the store just to visit the department, located near the front of the store, between the tobacco section and the pharmacy, especially for its large selection of hunting and fishing magazines.
A four-sided kiosk showcases 64 paperback books, including the 10 bestsellers. The large paperback selection, seven shelves along half the back wall, is heavy on romance novels. Another shelf of paperbacks snakes along the bottom of the entire perimeter of the section.
The magazine section resembles an airport bookstore, with more than 180 titles displayed on the wall, as well as a four-sided kiosk.
"This is just like going to the mall," Staton said. "It's got everything I want." The Round Rock store has the best department of any H-E-B to date, said a book and magazine distributor familiar with the area's chain stores. He asked not to be identified.
Austin is an excellent market, the source pointed out. It is the state capital and home to the largest campus of the University of Texas. It also is one of the nation's high-tech centers, with such companies as Dell Computer Corp., Motorola, Advanced Micro Devices and hundreds of software firms. Many call it "Silicon Gulch."
Science-fiction books are hot sellers in Austin. Magazine sales are strong in all categories, especially computer magazines, he added.
One H-E-B store has a new Ziff-Davis magazine display that holds all the publishing company's computer magazines. "It's one of the best vehicles for the product that we've ever seen," the source commented. About a third of the residents in the Austin area have at least a bachelor's degree, ranking Austin the most-educated U.S. city with a population of more than 250,000, according to the 1990 U.S. Census.
Austinites are avid readers. According to an often-cited statistic, the city has the highest per-capita book sales in the country. The statistic is dated, however. (In 1987, Austin had bookstore sales per household of $195.86, which was the highest in the nation, according to the Tarrytown, N.Y.-based American Booksellers Association. That was the last year the association compiled that data.)
Over the past four years, Barnes & Noble has opened three superstores in the Austin area, with another two in development. Borders Books & Music has one store, with another planned. The area also has several Bookstops, a subsidiary of Barnes & Noble, and a number of locally independent bookstores.
As competition has increased, the stores have used a variety of weapons to gain customers, including author readings and signing events, story times for children, literary discussion groups, quality coffee bars, live music, compact-disc listening stations and an overall relaxed ambience.
While these are not options at many supermarkets, several chains have tried different bookstore formats in the Austin area to try to capture the huge market for books and magazines.
One of the area's best book selections can be found in Boise, Idaho-based Albertson's two-year-old Village Market store in West Lake Hills, an upscale suburb of Austin.
Although it has no special signage, the section is large and easy to see, located in the front of the store near video rentals and greeting cards. The square section is roughly 200 square feet, rather than the traditional 12-foot by 12-foot department, with an expanded selection of magazines and books.
One-half of the L-shaped shelves are dedicated to roughly 250 magazine titles, with more than 24 computer titles. The other half has five wire shelves with more than 200 paperback titles. They are divided into romance, mystery, Western, fiction and nonfiction. There is a section dedicated to Silhouette and Harlequin romances.
The section also has two four-sided islands. One features magazines and hardbacks, including such new releases as Ann Rice's "Pandora" and Dean Koontz's "Fear Nothing" and the popular "Goosebumps" children's books.
Another has bestsellers and "Titles of the Month," a selection of paperback books by particular authors. On this day, the authors were Michael Crichton and Danielle Steel. The island also has a selection of computer manuals, like America Online for Dummies, and gardening books.
"This is unique for Albertson's," said the source. "It's the first time they've done that. It's been very successful."
Five minutes from the Albertson's store, Houston-based Randalls Food Markets has one of its largest book selections, said the source. It is roughly 500 square feet, with a bigger footprint than anything else in the market, he said.
The section is located in front of the checkouts, next to the film-processing section and in front of the pharmacy. It has no special lighting or signage.
The mix is heavy on travel, high-tech, young adults and blockbuster bestsellers. It merchandises magazines on two-sided racks that hold roughly 100 titles on each side. Hardbacks are promoted with 25%-off bonus-buy tags.
Charles Brent said he had been to three other supermarkets, including an H-E-B and an Albertson's, before coming to the Randalls, where he found an expanded selection of home-building and decorating magazines. The store had nearly 30 titles.
"None of the other stores had these," said Brent, who is building a house on 10 acres in the central Texas hill country.
The section has more than 30 titles of computer magazines.
Bestsellers are featured on the endcaps. More than 300 paperback titles are displayed on wire shelves.