Anderson's Books may have had the largest letter-writing campaign since the PW Bookstore of the Year Award was first given 19 years ago, but that wasn't the determining factor in its selection. Rather, it was a trait singled out by sales rep Sheila Hennessey, of Penguin Books for Young Readers: "[Anderson's] takes bookselling to new heights." Or as her regional sales manager, Ev Taylor, put it, "They do everything and they do it a bit better than other stores." While he referred specifically to the way Anderson's serves the community, works with local schools, and gives authors a platform, how the bookstore does all that is encapsulated in its slogan: "We sell books the old-fashioned way: we read them."
Anderson's Books—which today includes bookstores in Naperville and Downers Grove, Ill.; ABC Book Fairs, a book fair company in Aurora, Ill.; Two-Doors East gift shop in Naperville; as well as sister company Oswald's Pharmacy in Naperville, with a 1,500-sq.-ft. book-and-toy section—goes back five generations, to 1875, when Walter Wickel purchased a pharmacy, Wickel's Drugstore, in downtown Naperville, which the next owner, his son-in-law Louis Oswald, renamed Oswald's. In 1964 Oswald's son-in-law, grandfather to today's owners—four Anderson siblings—opened the precursor of the stand-alone bookstores, Paperback Paradise, on the second floor of the pharmacy. Under the family's division of labor, Tres buys toys and adult titles; Pete runs the book fair company; Bill runs the pharmacy; and Becky buys children's books and will assume the presidency of the American Booksellers Association next month. With its unique history, the Andersons regard both their community and their employees as family. "The customer as family is paramount, and we will always go that extra mile to make them feel special," says Becky Anderson.
While the retailer uses "old-fashioned" as part of its slogan, there's nothing out-dated about Anderson's approach to bookselling. In a difficult retail environment, Anderson's has posted double-digit increases over the past decade: up more than 22% for its bookstores and over 27% for the book fair company. Its inventory turns were roughly 4.4 last year. In fact, Anderson's sales growth outpaced that of the town, which was named one of Money magazine's best small cities three times in the past 10 years. Once a small farming community, Naperville has a population of 141,853, up 10.5%, according to the 2010 census. During the same 10-year period, nearby Chicago saw its population drop 6.9%.
Throughout its 136-year history, Anderson's has embraced change, from expanding the pharmacy and moving it a mile away in July 2005 to remodeling the main Naperville bookstore in 2008, during a time of economic uncertainty, and opening a gift shop two doors down the following year. When the ABA launched IndieBound in 2008 to foster a national movement around independent businesses, Anderson's became the poster child. It emblazoned the red-and-white IndieBound logo on its panel truck, posted it in its store windows, and spread the message to neighboring businesses by launching an IndieBound Naperville shop-local movement.
"People depend on us," says Becky Anderson, whose mantra is "we need to sell more books." To do so, she is looking beyond shop local to new business models. For example, she questions the value of co-op and advocates replacing it with better terms. "We've been working on the same co-op model for years, and nothing has changed. It would be better if we had better discounts," she says. She looks for lines with dating and buys Workman titles nonreturnable for additional margin. On the toy side, Anderson's stocks Playmobile and Bananagrams, which puts a minimum retail price on its products, something that she would like to see book publishers in the U.S. offer.
Once 60/40 adult to kids, children's books and events are now 50/50 with those of adult books; 75/25 if the book fair business is added. Favorite hand-sells include Neil Gaiman's Graveyard Book, which was part of the Naperville Reads, a citywide reading program initiated by the store, selling more than 1,400 copies, and Suzanne Collins's Hunger Games, more than 1,700 copies. To get children's books off to a strong start, Anderson's holds pre-pub events, modeled after the pre-pub dinners that publishers hold for booksellers, except the store serves pizza at the warehouse. The store gives out ARCs before the event, which can draw between 40 and 150 children, teachers, librarians, and booksellers. "It gives the book a boost before it comes out," says Becky Anderson, who predicts that its most recent pre-pub event, for author Veronica Roth, will help make Divergent a store bestseller. And the store has an active author in the schools program, with more than 105 authors and illustrators who made 250 school visits last year.
With the fall of Borders, Becky Anderson sees opportunity for independents. "We don't want to jump on anyone's grave," she says, echoing comments from a recent Great Lakes independent Booksellers Association ABA Forum. "But we wonder how we can take advantage of it." She not only regards it as essential to let customers know that Anderson's is still very much in business, but also that it will continue to offer books, whatever the format. In December, Anderson's took the plunge and began selling Google e-books. With Random House's recent decision to move to an agency model, Anderson says that she can now compete on price and is planning to let her customers know that they can get the same e-book pricing from their local independent as Amazon and Apple, which has an outlet directly across the street. The store is in the midst of creating large signage to advertise its e-book pricing and expertise in finding the right book. Already Anderson's has begun posting QR codes on its shelves so that customers in the store can link to Andersons.com to buy the e-book. The store is also active on Goodreads.com, but mostly behind the scenes on a site limited to staff. Adult book buyer Mary Yockey uses it to keep track of important books, and booksellers are encouraged to post reviews, which are later turned into shelf-talkers.
Starting this summer, Anderson's will begin selling used books for the first time. The store has long carried bargain titles, which do particularly well at the pharmacy and at book fairs. It also has collected used books, along with a few ARCs and f&gs, as part of a charity program. At book fairs, children are encouraged to buy a new book, donate a used, and the donations are given to teachers, reading specialists, and homeless shelters as part of Anderson's Andrea's Angels program, named for an employee whose daughter was murdered. To date, about 400,000 books have been donated. The store also collects and gift wraps new children's books for its book angel program; 1,700 books were delivered to needy children last Christmas.
Despite Anderson's success and its strict division of duties among the owners, it's not always easy for four family members to run a business, even a successful one. "We meet regularly and go over finances," says Becky Anderson, who admits that sometimes she feels like she's four years old again. "It's hard when you all live in the same town, work in the same store, and get together for family dinners." But she and her brothers, the first generation where no one became a pharmacist, are determined to make it work. As for the sixth generation, it's still early, but with 13 children among the four siblings, Becky Anderson is confident that at least one will want to carry on the Anderson's tradition and reshape it once again.