For 125 years, this bookstore has sold fridges, flags - and books

For five generations and 125 years, Anderson’s Books & Office Supply has stood as a sentinel on Newton’s Main Street.

It has survived big box stores and the internet.

And now, it thrives on niches.

Want to buy a typewriter ribbon for that 1920 Smith Corona?

Anderson’s has it.

Fountain pens, carbon copying paper, specialty envelopes, small lots of resume paper, letter jacket patches, train puzzles, sports clothing, vintage textbooks, Melissa and Doug toys, Kansas flags and books. They’ve got them all.

“The way we have survived is by creating little niches,” says Murray Anderson, the fifth generation of Andersons to run the store. “We still continue to carry all the old bookkeeping items for people who are old school.”

From 4 to 6 p.m. on Wednesday, the Andersons are hosting an open house to celebrate 125 years of their family-owned business.

“It’s fun to be able to celebrate 125 years on Main Street. We think we are one of the oldest family-owned retail stores in America that still sell books,” Anderson said.

Marcia Lawrence, owner of Ellen Plumb City Bookstore in Emporia, one of the state’s newest bookstores, agrees and says the Anderson family holds a record not only for Kansas but in the nation.

“For them to be in business for 125 years – that is an incredible testament both to the family and to the strength of people’s love for books,” said Lawrence, who is a longtime customer of the Newton bookstore. “Newton is not a large town, and to support a bookstore continuous for that length of time is an amazing feat. I wish them another 125 years.”

For many Kansans, the bookstore is a landmark.

“They are a specialty store with great service and who offer old-fashioned service,” said Marci Penner, director of the Kansas Sampler Foundation near Inman, which promotes rural culture and whose latest book is featured prominently in the Newton bookstore. “They treat you the way you want to be treated as a customer.”

A few years ago, Phil Anderson – a die-hard University of Kansas Jayhawk fan – brought in former Jayhawk guard Mario Chalmers for a book signing.

It packed the store.

The store

There are four words the 84-year-old Phil Anderson hears almost daily from his customers: “I love this store!”

Indeed, it is a building with ambiance.

Tin ceilings, original wood floors, shelves stuffed with hard-to-find-elsewhere treasures. There is even the 1905 brass cash register on which only an Anderson could approve store credit. A more modern credit card reader is relegated to the back counter.

The building itself was the first J.C. Penney store in Kansas and opened in 1916 at Sixth and Main. J.C. Penney originally called the store the Golden Rule, until friends convinced him to name the store after himself. The name Golden Rule is embedded into the entryway of Anderson’s Book & Office Supply store at 627 N. Main.

Phil Anderson’s grandfather, Phillip Murray Anderson, started the Anderson business in 1892. It was a miracle the store even opened. Theirs is a story of constant retail re-invention. The 1890s were tough times – an economic bust and drought were felt throughout Kansas, and the Populist Party was on the rise. Phillip Murray Anderson was a teenager trying to support his family after his father had left.

He started selling concessions at the Ragsdale Opera House across the street from where the store is located now. Later, he began selling newspapers and magazines to people traveling on the Santa Fe trains through Newton. In 1903, he opened Anderson’s News Stand at 429 Main. Family lore says he met the trains daily from 5 a.m. until 10 p.m.

Anderson’s then became the first Eastman Kodak dealer for Newton and added athletic goods and apparel. Within a few years, it also became the first Waterman Fountain Pen dealer in the state.

A soda fountain was added – made of mahogany, onyx and marble with porcelain jars and electric lights on top.

“He paid $1,800 for it,” Murray Anderson said. “Think of what that money today would be. He was always on top of the curve for what was new and bringing in things for Newton.”

The store began selling fine china and was a dealer for Victrola record players and GE refrigerators.

Joyce Hall from Hall Brothers called on the store to carry a new postcard line, which later turned into Hallmark Cards.

By the 1920s, Anderson’s was buying supplies in large quantities, selling both retail to the public and wholesale to other bookstores. Phil M. Anderson was the chairman of the Kansas Book Dealer’s Association for nearly three decades.

In 1928, the store moved to 522 Main and then, 10 years later, to the old J.C. Penney Store at 627 N. Main. At one time, the store even sold sandwiches and pastry items.

As the years went by, some of the items were dropped from the store’s line: the china, GE refrigerators, Victrolas and Kodak products. But the store still carries Hallmark cards and Watermark pens.

For decades, it was the place to buy school supplies. The store would provide every item needed for each grade and package every item in a brown paper bag.

“On the first day of school, you could not go anywhere, this place was packed with wall-to-wall people,” Murray Anderson said. “We had your pencils, theme books and rulers.”

“It was known as a monopoly,” said his dad, Phil Anderson, the fourth generation to run the store.

But in 1976, all of that changed. That’s when Alco, a regional discount store, opened in Newton.

For downtown Newton, it signaled the beginning of massive changes for it and other small towns across the nation.

The 1970s was a time of franchise expansion, when big box stores began opening in smaller midsize towns – and longtime customers of local small town stores would gravitate to the bigger discount stores in larger towns.

“Of course, back then we had three women’s stores, three men’s stores, three shoe stores, a Woolworths, an Otasco, a Ben Franklin, a Montgomery Wards, a J.C. Penney’s – all downtown,” Phil Anderson said. “By the late 1970s and 1980s, all that was disappearing.”

Since then, the store has had to re-invent itself several more times, through offering office supplies and items on eBay.

“We offer things the Wal-Mart computer says isn’t enough to sale,” Murray Anderson said. “We have all these little niches.”

The irony is that while some residents in Newton and the surrounding area may still be unfamiliar with Anderson’s, the store’s customers now come from around the world.

The future

The Associated Press reported this past week that many retail stores are now shutting down at the fastest pace since the financial crash of 2008.

During the American Bookseller’s Association’s prolonged decline, when the rise of superstores and e-books helped cut membership from around 5,000 in the 1980s to just 1,401 in 2008, the market looked so dire that some profitable stores closed because the owner wanted to retire and no buyer could be found. In recent years, independent stores have been helped by a variety of factors, from the fall of Borders and the struggles of Barnes & Noble to the leveling off of e-book sales.

For a Kansas bookstore to survive so long is an anomaly.

There may be hope for a new generation of Andersons to run the store, Murray Anderson said. His two children, Avery and Kaylee, are still in school, and it will be up to them to decide whether to become the sixth generation to run the store.

“The business has seen a lot of changes, but we have always found a way to adapt,” he said.

“We are small,” Phil Anderson interjects, “but we like to think we are big time.”

Contributing: Associated Press

Beccy Tanner: 316-268-6336, @beccytanner