February 18, 2010

Anderson’s adept at reinvention

NEWTON — Stuffed tightly inside a narrow slice of the 1940s is Newton's oldest business.

NEWTON — Stuffed tightly inside a narrow slice of the 1940s is Newton's oldest business.

Be prepared to stay awhile as fourth-generation owner Phil Anderson III explains what 118-year-old Anderson's Book & Office Supply really is: an old-style general store with "a little bit of everything," he says with a chuckle.

Books? There are a few, but not as many as the 1940s and '50s when the store was the only place Newton students could buy textbooks.

Office supplies? Sure, there's a counterfeit-proof pen, specialty envelopes, fountain pen ink, some carbon paper and even a typewriter or two and a bunch of ribbons, but not your standard collection of pens and paper since Walmart came to town and siphoned off most of that business.

Instead, Anderson's is a century-old testament to the power of retail reinvention.

Because in its 118 years, it has been the place in Newton to buy appliances, china, books, art, tobacco, office supplies and sports memorabilia.

"You can't sell anything Walmart sells," said the fifth generation, Murray Anderson, Phil's son, a residential real estate agent with J.P. Weigand & Sons.

"What people come in to see us for is the odd item and the experience, the old-time feel. By refusing to change too much, but seeing the niches and not getting into them too much, is the latest way we've prospered."

The ambience

The store at the southwest corner of Broadway and Main is a living and breathing testimony — as the creaking, groaning, 100-year-old stairs to the second floor prove — to Newton's salad days as a hub for the railroad and Kansas high school basketball.

On two upstairs shelves rest some early 20th century Railer basketball championship trophies, curiously discarded by the high school.

Nearby remain some of those 1940s and 1950s textbooks, "the core of our business before the state stepped in on that in the 1960s," Phil Anderson said.

In the middle of the store downstairs is the 1905 cash register that several generations of Andersons used to do business, complete with a stern admonition that only an Anderson could approve a credit purchase.

So the computerized credit card reader sticks out like a beacon on the back counter. "Dad finally admitted that we needed one," Phil Anderson said, chuckling.

The store is just the way Anderson and his customers like it, but it took Phil Anderson decades to see that light.

"Oh sure, I hit Dad up about getting more modern, remodeling," Phil Anderson laughed.

"When I was young, maybe five or 10 years out of college in the 1950s. And stupid."

The Andersons wouldn't dare move or tweak the old-time retail feel of their store.

"Don't change it," growled Meta Blue, a customer.

"This may sound strange, but I'm a little old and just the fact that I'm used to this place. I know the people; I know the place. I cannot even describe intelligently what I want and if I keep talking they will know what it is and they will have it. Somewhere."

The building is why the store is still in business, Phil Anderson said.

"Customers come in here all the time and tell us how much they love this store," he said.

The business model

The balance sheet has been a roller coaster during the store's history: up during good times, down during recessions and high-vacancy periods in downtown Newton.

The way the family fights back is through innovation: the constant search for new niches and an Internet presence on eBay auctioning vintage textbooks and games.

Today, Anderson's "is profitable," Phil Anderson said.

"And there are a lot of reasons for that. Personal service, to be certain. And since we're home-owned, we have the flexibility to do our own purchasing, select our own goods and inventory instead of someone higher-up who doesn't understand the market."

That flexibility allows an almost constant search for new niches to fill.

"Well, Walmart, the shoppers start there first but they end up here because they can't find what they want," Anderson said.

"That's what we do, carry a lot of specialty items for that very purpose. The Walmart folks are good about sending people down here. You're always going to have to compete with the chains. We do that through our flexibility to seek out merchandise that's still in demand but not available with the chains."

Anderson's resume bears out the century-long success of that strategy: In its history, the store has been the first General Electric, Hallmark, Sheaffer pen and Cross pen retailer in Newton.

And when vacancies mounted downtown and business slowed, Anderson turned to eBay, increasing cash flow through the auction of vintage toys, many bought for pennies by Anderson's grandfather that fetched four figures on the Web.

Phil Anderson, an unabashed Kansas basketball fan, isn't shy about using his Jayhawks to generate store traffic, either.

Last summer, he brought former Jayhawk guard Mario Chalmers in for a book-signing.

"Didn't make a dime off the book... but it really packed folks in here," Phil Anderson said, beaming.

The future

The past is the future of Anderson's — personal service, specialty office supplies and who knows what else that you can't find elsewhere.

There are two sixth-generation grandsons beginning work in the store, and Grandpa's hoping they catch the retailing bug.

"You never know," he said, smiling again.

What isn't in the future is retirement for Phil and his wife, Jan.

"Why?" he asked. "I love what I do. I love coming in here every day.

"Dad often said they'd carry him out of here, and they basically did. Same thing with me. They'll have to carry me out of here."

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