James Cohen, Associated Press
This undated photo provided by James Cohen shows magazine distributor Robert B. Cohen. Cohen, who built the Hudson News chain of newsstands from one store at LaGuardia Airport and changed the way travelers spend their downtime, died Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2012 at age 86.

NEW YORK — Magazine distributor Robert B. Cohen, who built the Hudson News chain of newsstands from one store at LaGuardia Airport and changed the way travelers spend their downtime, has died at age 86.

Cohen was already a giant in the magazine and newspaper distribution business when he decided to launch a retail chain in 1987. His stores were a break from the claustrophobic newsstands of the past, boasting hundreds of magazines instead of just a few dozen, with tall racks and bright lighting that invited customers to browse.

His son, James Cohen, called it a "new-concept newsstand."

"It was something very inviting that wanted to draw customers in," he said Thursday.

Robert Cohen died Wednesday at his home in Palm Beach, Fla., of complications from a neurological disease called progressive supranuclear palsy, his son said.

A native of Bayonne, N.J., Robert Cohen took over his father's small newspaper distribution company, the Hudson County News Co., in 1947. The company was named after the New Jersey county where it was based. By the 1970s it had become the biggest magazine wholesaler in the United States.

In the 1980s, Cohen expanded his newspaper distribution business by purchasing Newark Newsdealers and the Metropolitan News Co. in partnership with The New York Times. Metropolitan News distributed the Times and The Wall Street Journal. Cohen sold his stake in both companies to the Times in 1994.

Cohen made his first foray into retail by taking over a bankrupt newsstand at a terminal of the Newark, N.J., airport in the 1970s. The newsstand bought magazines from Cohen, and when it went out of business the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which runs area transit hubs, invited him to take over the concession, his son said.

He opened the first Hudson News at LaGuardia Airport. Instead of kiosks blanketed with overlapping periodicals, Hudson News newsstands were airy, brightly lit stores with racks that showed the entire covers of magazines.

"Instead of just a few dozen titles, because we were the distributor, we put up hundreds," James Cohen said. "We gave people a selection that they would not find anywhere else, titles even from foreign countries, from all over the world."

Instead of forcing customers to jockey around a counter to read headlines, Hudson News stores encouraged browsing. They were a hit with air travelers looking to kill time between flights.

"It was all based on the not-so-scientific fact that people really like to read stuff when they go on a plane," James Cohen said.

The chain now has more than 600 stores across the country, including in most major airports. In 2008, Robert Cohen sold a majority stake in the chain, which later was merged with Dufry AG, an operator of duty-free stores.

Cohen was an avid tennis player and played basketball while a student at New York University, where he was teammates with Dolph Schayes, who later played professionally for Syracuse and Philadelphia and was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame.

Cohen also owned racehorses, and one of his thoroughbreds finished second in the 1974 Kentucky Derby. The horse's name: Hudson County.

Besides his son, Cohen is survived by his wife, Harriet Cohen, a daughter-in-law and six grandchildren.

Follow Associated Press writer Chris Hawley at http://twitter.com/chawley1