Joan and Fred Howes never leave home without them.
Before heading off on one of their frequent car trips, the couple visits an audiobook store near their home in Georgetown, Texas. "We pick up enough tapes to last for the entire trip," says Mrs. Howes, who, like her husband, is retired.
As the miles roll by, so do mysteries, biographies, novels, and adventure tales - an eclectic mix she cheerfully calls "the whole waterfront" of literature. "We tend to like suspense when we're traveling," she adds. "It keeps us more alert."
Although retirees still account for a relatively small part of the audiobook market, older enthusiasts are quick to point out the advantages: portability, high-quality recordings, and the chance to share books and ideas by listening with family members or friends.
Jan Nathan, executive director of the Audio Publishers Association in Manhattan Beach, Calif., explains that the primary users of audiobooks are those in their mid-40s with average incomes in the $50,000-plus range.
"That's probably going to preclude older people from buying them," Ms. Nathan says. "But they may be great users, because they rent them from the library."
Hank Barfeld, collection specialist at the Arlington Heights (Ill.) Memorial Library, agrees. "Seniors make up a sizable percentage of our patrons," he says.
Many older listeners also rent audiobooks from stores. Noting that many library budgets have been cut back, Tony Zavaleta, manager of Earful of Books in Austin, Texas, says, "We have the selections that libraries do not."
He and other audiobook store managers note that older listeners' preferences are as wide-ranging as any other group's.
"They're just like the rest of my customers," says Betty Henley, co-owner of Audio Book Central in Belmont, Calif. "One customer wants the classics, another wants salacious bestsellers. One sweet little lady said, 'I want something romantic.' Somebody else said, 'Not too many of those kinds of words.' I knew what she meant." Mr. Zavaleta adds, "If anything is a little more popular with older folks, it's biographies and history titles. Probably they have more insight into history."
Maxine Hegsted of Wellesley Hills, Mass., fits that category. "I'm especially fond of biography and autobiography, and I like history," says Mrs. Hegsted, a retired teacher and professional artist who rents an average of two tapes a week. In recent weeks she has also listened to three of John Grisham's suspense novels.
"I've found those very diverting and very good, because they also deal with social issues," she says. Then, mentioning another category on her list, she says with a laugh, "Nobody can turn down a good love story."
Still, store managers concede that many older people remain reluctant to try audiobooks. "A lot of seniors don't like any kind of technology," Mr. Barfeld says.
Jane Ross, manager of Bookteller in Wellesley Hills, Mass., finds the resistance puzzling. "Seniors were radio people," she says. "But some of them think listening to a book is like cheating. They just don't equate it with listening to stories on radio."
She offers one idea for introducing them to books on tape: "You're going to have lunch with Mom, and you say, 'Look, I've got to do this book for my book club, will you listen with me?' It's not being pushed on them, and it usually works."
Because retirees have more time to listen, Ms. Henley says, many finish their audiobooks quickly. "They might do a large 12-cassette book in three days, whereas our other customers are commuting or raising their families, and it takes them a week or two to go through the same book."
For mobile listeners like the Howeses, Zavaleta sends along stamped, addressed mailers for easy return. Wherever they might be on the road, Mrs. Howes says, "All we need to do is slip the tape in the envelope and drop it in the nearest mailbox."
The Howeses now fine-tune their selections to match the length of a particular leg of a trip. Earlier this month, when Mrs. Howes made a four-hour drive that required a few stops, she rented several two-hour tapes and two one-hour tapes.
"There's nothing worse than having to stop a really exciting book at the high point," she explains. "You have to know how it comes out."