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Biz helps U.S. culture go global

"Elvis is always big with everybody," said 62-year-old Sonja Hansen, owner and operator of the terminal's Music Express store, the source of the purchases.It would appear that even in an era when cultural artefacts have global reach, certain products - Elvis not withstanding - still have specific cachet. Hansen said she cannot always discern the reasons for the particular tastes, but has closely followed the trends in order to make her business a success."This is what I felt could be a service to people," she said.After the former Staten Island educator retired from teaching, she decided to start her own business, a long-held desire. She started by opening a gift store in Lake Mohawk, N.J., catering to the large number of commercial pilots and flight attendants in the area. Serving them left an impression."I could see they had an exposure to the world," she said.After a brief stint back in Staten Island to open a New Age store called Spellbound, Hansen heard that the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey was looking to diversify its airport merchants with women- and minority-owned businesses. Her daughter, Kirsten Doyle, a music fan, suggested they start a CD store and Hansen, realizing the genre was hot, secured a bid.Her shop became the first music store located in an American airport when it opened in the old International Arrivals Building in 1993. Hansen soon opened a second outlet at LaGuardia Airport. When Terminal 4 was built and became the new home for international flights at Kennedy in 2001, Hansen was the only existing merchant allowed to stay on. She later added Silver Collection, an affordable jewelry store she opened at the request of Carol Fish, director of The Shops at Terminal 4, to her mini-empire.But as business soared at Kennedy's Music Express, it quickly outgrew its location."It was impossible to fit the passengers inside," Hansen said. "The sales kept going up, up, up." In response, she got permission to open a larger store in an adjacent space, creating a 600-square-foot, modern glass-walled structure.The shop, like the others, sits before the security checkpoints and it continues to give travelers a chance to take a taste of the American music and pop culture scene back home. In addition to the kitsch, Music Express also sells CDs, Apple iPods and handheld Sony PlayStation PSP game devices. Mother and daughter also have a proposal in the wings to open yet another store inside the concourse.Neither Hansen, an English literature major, nor Doyle, a photography major, have ever taken a business class and did not know how to even do an inventory list at first."Which is why maybe we are flexible and innovative," Hansen said, noting that they did not get bogged down with economic theories and business models. Instead, they have built three stores and a staff of 15 with simple ideas: listening to customers and quickly jumping on trends. The Indian connection to Superman, for example, came from an article in the Staten Island Advance newspaper."You can learn from everybody, including a 3-year-old," Hansen said.Reach reporter Michael Morton by e-mail at news@timesledger.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 154.

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