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Seattle makes it easier to find Nirvana at the airport

Travelers will soon be able to find Nirvana—as well as Soundgarden, Mudhoney and Band of Horses—and recordings from other bands in the Sub Pop indie-rock catalog at a store opening in April at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

"For many people, the airport serves as a first and last impression of a city," said Megan Jasper, vice president at Sub Pop. "Sub Pop hopes to add to the quality of that experience by proudly representing the city's love for music and its culture."

Founded in 1988, the Seattle-based label vaulted grunge rock to international fame. Sub Pop is to Seattle what Motown was to Detroit and Sun Records was to Memphis.

"Seattle music has become part of the cultural identity of the city and is as rooted in our 'brand' as Amazon, Microsoft and Starbucks coffee," said Charles R. Cross, author of the forthcoming book "Here We Are Now: The Lasting Impact of Kurt Cobain." "Sub Pop is a big part of that, and even though not every local band is on Sub Pop, their name, more than any other, evokes Seattle music to many people."

Sub Pop created the pop-up Mega Mart store in a Seattle neighborhood last summer to celebrate the label's 25th anniversary.
Source: Sub Pop
Sub Pop created the pop-up Mega Mart store in a Seattle neighborhood last summer to celebrate the label's 25th anniversary.

The roots in Northwest culture "fit well into Sea-Tac airport's retail offerings, [which] feature a unique combination of local and national brands," airport spokeswoman Christina Faine said in an email. "Locally there is a following for Sub Pop, with its quintessentially quirky Northwest merchandise."

(Read more: Alaska Airlines to put more free microbeers on Horizon)

Faine said live performances outside the Sub Pop store will complement the airport's existing music program, which includes short concerts, music videos and recorded greetings by local musicians. The store will sell T-shirts and posters celebrating the region's cultural history, as well as CDs and vinyl records.

"You can get Starbucks and Seattle's Best coffees almost everywhere, but there are only a few places left where you can find rare Sub Pop vinyl," Cross said. "Now our airport is one of them."

"Seattle music has become part of the cultural identity of the city and is as rooted in our 'brand' as Amazon, Microsoft, and Starbucks coffee." -Charles R. Cross, Author of "Here We Are Now: The Lasting Impact of Kurt Cobain"

The job posting for manager at the Sub Pop airport shop makes it clear that music is a priority: "Knowledge of the Sub Pop catalog, Pacific Northwest music, the Seattle music community and the city of Seattle" is required, it stated.

In addition to the Sub Pop store, Metsker Maps, a popular Seattle shop selling maps, globes, travel guides and geography-themed books and gifts, will open a branch Sea-Tac in May.

(Read more: Airports ramping up downtown rail connections)

It's a different story 160 miles south, where Oregon's Portland International Airport (PDX) will lose two of its three branches of the iconic indie bookstore Powell's City of Books, whose flagship in downtown Portland fills an entire block.

"The airport is rethinking the retail on the concourses and likely responding to the changing patterns of travelers who want to get past security quickly," Powell's Books CEO Miriam Sontz told CNBC. "But leases that were coming due later this year are not being renewed, and the option offered of extending these leases to Dec. 31 doesn't work for our business."

The airport is asking tenants with expiring contracts to join other interested businesses in submitting proposals for future operations.

"The proposals would be part of a program in its early stages that would redevelop airport concessions as we continue to improve the passenger experience at PDX," said Port of Portland airport spokesman Steve Johnson.

Powell's two post-security branches will close June 30, but its pre-security store, which opened in 1988 and offers games, toys and gifts along with new and used books, will remain. The airport store also buys used books.

(Read more: Airport upgrades: Changing rooms, outdoor plazas)

"We're very sad—this was not a choice we wanted," Sontz said. "I may be the CEO, but I'm also a traveler. And I think this will affect people's ability to have that last chance to grab a bit of reading before a long flight."

—By Harriet Baskas, special to CNBC.com. Baskas is the author of seven books, including "Hidden Treasures: What Museums Can't or Won't Show You," and the Stuck at the Airport blog. Follow her on Twitter at @hbaskas. Follow Road Warrior at @CNBCtravel.

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