Commercial pilots are curious creatures – especially where public announcements, passenger expectations and mid-March weather are concerned. I had just attempted to get my hair moving in one direction and store my wash bag when the Cathay Pacific captain came on to the PA system (a deep, rich, plummy ex-RAF accent that could confidently talk a 747 on to the runway should all four engines fail) and said we were 30 minutes from touch down in Frankfurt. “It looks like we’ll be just ahead of the snow, which is likely to get heavy around mid-morning,” he explained before signing off.
As the motherly Filipino crew went about their tidy-up and safety-check routine we dropped into thick clouds northwest of Frankfurt and the aircraft juddered and bounced a bit with the changes in air pressure. Shortly after, the landing lights were cranked up to full and I could see streams of snow hurtling outside the window. The lights of Frankfurt illuminated the clouds but there was no sign of the ground – just blizzard. Would we have to go around? Divert? And if so, where? As these thoughts flashed, we finally dropped out of the clouds about 200ft above the treetops and settled on to a snowy runway. Captain, what were you saying about being ahead of the snow?
After a grumpy greeting from a menacing-looking immigration officer, a slushy, circuitous walk to the car and a stop-start drive to the hotel, I was already missing Tokyo and Hong Kong and not looking forward to my Mitteleuropa tour – circa 17 days. As I settled into the hotel and found my Teutonic rhythm (a sharp, smooth, quick pace – if a tad mechanical), I decided to take on the now and went to the train station to sort out my tickets rather than leaving it to four minutes pre-departure (my usual, non-Teutonic modus operandi).
Frankfurt’s Hauptbahnhof is a big, bustling hub of a station, with drunks and junkies milling around the entrance, feral kids with too many piercings hanging out by the U-Bahn corridors, hundreds of people pouring off trains heading to the Messe (this week it was the snappily named ISH – International Sanitary and Heating Expo) and hundreds more zipping off to Wiesbaden, Zürich and Hamburg. Was I liking Frankfurt more than when I landed? I wasn’t sure.
As I made my way to the ticket office I stopped at the kiosk to pick up a few magazines and newspapers. I was overwhelmed. For those who are used to popping into a newsstand at a UK, French or US transport hub and feeling somewhat underwhelmed, this particular branch of Schmitt & Hahn was the opposite. Covering an area that could have easily housed a midsize grocery store, the place was bursting with magazines and newspapers (all neatly stacked) from across the German-speaking world and many points beyond.
At the front of the shop were all the best sellers: Der Spiegel, Dominik Wichmann’s newly relaunched Stern, Bunte, WirtschaftsWoche and Gala. Scattered around were newish launches vying for attention. Viva, a spin-off from the Stern stable, looked interesting and, based on the cover (warm sunlight and a middle age couple with their feet up), I assumed it had something to do with quality of life and perhaps the best places to live in Europe.
I tend not to skim titles while shopping so I added it to my growing bundle and made my way to the specialist areas, passing the huge gardening section and stopping at the wall of titles devoted to being a hobby farmer (Landlust and LandLiebe among many others).
Here, I pondered how very different the retail market was in Germany compared with the world’s other top 10 economies. It was clear that neither Herr Schmitt nor Frau Hahn were sitting at head office with a group of consultants figuring out what titles they should be cutting from their offer and developing advanced formulas to be more scientific in their sales approach. Perhaps what was on offer could have been a little bit more curated (is the market for knitting and sewing still that big?) but then that would have defeated the overall impact of a deep and broad selection.
Indeed, why shouldn’t there be geopolitical journals devoted to counter-espionage in Asia or every single fashion magazine ever to be published off a kitchen table in Kreuzberg?
At the cash desk the young man sized up the bundle I’d amassed and pulled out two cotton bags to accommodate my haul. As I tapped in my PIN on the credit card terminal and he packed the bags, I wanted to capture this moment for other news and book retailers to see how it should be done. You get people to spend more by offering them choice and expertise, not by limiting the offer and trying to offset print sales with fizzy drinks. I was thrilled to be in Germany.
Tyler Brûlé is editor-in-chief of Monocle magazine