By the book

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athy Magee recalled her first trip to the south of France. Her boyfriend had invited her on a two-week trip to Provence. Because he had issued the invitation, she assumed he had planned the whole trip. Wrong.

As they left the Nice Airport in their rented car, he turned to her and said, "Which way?"

She had no idea, and a major fight ensued. She figured the relationship was over.

But they returned to the airport, where Kathy bought two guidebooks and a road map. The trip -- and the relationship -- was saved. (The couple is now married and owns a second home -- in France.)

When Kathy traveled bookless to France, she worked for Barnes & Noble; now she is a New York store manager and reads guidebooks for fun.

She helps teach a course on travel books to B&N staff who work in the chain's travel departments. I audited one of those classes this month.

She and B&N colleague Mark Paris started with product knowledge, describing characteristics of the book brands, illustrating how they target travelers: budget vs. upscale; independent vs tour member, etc.

As with agencies, book sellers have been described as doomed by the Web, but, Mark said, "the Web may have spurred sales; it has generated more frustration than enlightenment" as people research on line only to be overwhelmed. Travelers then turn to books as a simpler, more satisfying solution.

Mark said travel is the most "pleasureable" department to work in. "These customers are looking for more than just a book. They want advice."

He said it is incumbent on sellers to help buyers get the right book. "The wrong guide will make the customer miserable," he said. On the other hand, the right advice will produce a repeat customer, Kathy said.

Without using the words, Mark advised on selling up: After selecting the guidebook, "if you direct customers to the phrase books and maps, you add to the pleasure of the vacation." There also are the specialty guidebooks (on B&Bs, family travel, essays, etc.) to supplement the primary book.

He added that, oddly, it is sometimes necessary to convince someone who pays thousands for a trip of the value of spending $21 on a book.

The instructors ended with an exercise requiring the students to qualify Mark as a buyer.

Their questions covered destination, independent vs. group travel, length of trip, mode of ground transport, traveling companions, budget and sightseeing or activity goals.

A lot of this sounds very familiar, doesn't it? It's no wonder some agencies sell books. The informed bookseller clearly provides services complementary to those of the travel counselor.

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