Is this any way to run an airport?

Black bookseller Robert Crews once ran a thriving store at D/FW. Now he's in court fighting to save his business, thanks to airport policies that boost local minorities and squeeze airport concessionaires

The Hispanic dentist Rodriguez, meanwhile, entered a joint venture with Tie Rack, a British company that had several kiosks that sold ties and other assorted accessories at the airport. (This occurred without any one else competing for the partnership, according to airport files.) The terms of the agreement, according to files provided to the Dallas Observer in an open records request, show that all the dentist paid into the joint venture was $400, in return for 40 percent of the business.

In contrast, the airport staff looked askance at Crews' joint venture with two black businessmen, whose investment he was going to finance. They wouldn't accept the joint venture until they paid $10,000 each into the partnership.

And then there is the case of Victor Puente, a Fort Worth businessman who owns several newsstands and other concessions at the airport. Board member Adelfa Callejo recommended Puente among several other people to Crews as potential partners. Puente was one of only two people who responded to the airport's bid process for the Benjamin partnership. Airport records show that Puente got a piece of one of the most lucrative white-owned concessions at the airport, the Thomas Cook Currency Exchange, which grossed $16 million in 1997, according to airport records. Cook financed Puente's investment, meaning he did not have to put up a cent in return for 17 percent of gross revenues, according to the records.

"The whole bloody thing is a fraud," says Jeff Haynes, the luggage concessionaire who lost his permit over a DBE partnership dispute. "The way to balance things out is to bring in DBEs that are 100 percent owners. Don't try to impose them on successful small business owners who don't need partners. I was on a month-to-month lease that they wanted to restructure to one year, and they were taking 20 percent of my gross revenues for rent. How do you build up a business that way? How do you get a DBE partner to invest with only the security of one year? There shouldn't be DBE requirements for these kinds of deals. They inject these guys into your business, and they sit back and get a check in the mail. It's ridiculous."

Robert Crews didn't break into the airport bookstore business by horning in on anybody else's deal. He fell into it by accident.

The son of a New Jersey dry cleaner, Crews grew up outside Princeton, a quiet college town where he learned to value books. In 1973, he was fresh out of the service and studying architecture when a brief vacation to California permanently detoured his career path. Looking for a good book to buy while waiting for his flight at New Jersey's Newark Airport, he became incensed when all he could find for sale were "X-rated, girlie books." When he returned from his vacation, he fired off an angry letter to the New York Port Authority, which ran the airports and bus terminals in the New York and New Jersey area.

"I was livid that in the best-published, best-read nation on earth, we didn't make books as readily available as chewing gum," Crews recalls. "I asked the Port Authority why they were selling smut instead of literature."

When Crews returned from his vacation, the Port Authority invited him to a board meeting to discuss his letter. They challenged him to put his money where his mouth was and open a bookstore at the airport.

"I told them I didn't have any money, but I did have a mouth."
With the Port Authority's help, Crews secured a low-interest disadvantaged business loan for $35,000. He then negotiated a 10-year lease with Newark Airport. He used his middle name Benjamin for his bookstores, because he though the name sounded Jewish and that might help him get more credit down the line. Putting in grueling 16-hour days, Crews did a lot of volume during his first three years in business, but it was difficult to make much money. Books are pre-priced by publishers, which locks sellers into a fixed price. The only way he could make more money was to open more stores.

So Crews set out to find more airports to conquer. He branched out first to Washington National and then Dulles--locations close enough for him to reach by car, which helped keep expenses down. Throughout the 1970s and '80s, Benjamin Books expanded into more than a dozen markets, including New York, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Denver, Seattle, and Orlando.

"It just kept going," Crews says. "No one ever had a bookstore in an airport before. And my timing was good. And let's face it, I was helping these airports meet the new federal government requirement to give business opportunities to disadvantaged business enterprises. I became the premier airport minority concessionaire in the country. I spoke all over."

In fact, he spoke at D/FW to a group of minority concessionaires who had finally broken Host's stranglehold on the newsstand business. Crews says he tried to show them how to become more profitable by assuming management and operating responsibilities that they were paying for in additional fees to Host.

Crews opened his first store at D/FW in 1988 at Gate 35 in Terminal 3E. He was grossing about $1,200 per square foot, second only to the duty free shops in revenues. The numbers were impressive and caught the eye of the airport's fledgling concessions department, which was on the verge of planning a major expansion program. In spring 1993, the airport sent letters to all DBE businesses that had a joint venture or sublease arrangement with Host to determine who would be interested in and qualified for a direct contract with the board.

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