Three decades ago, franchises of independent bookstores created some of the biggest chains in the country. At its height in the late 1980s, Annie's Book Stop, which was headquartered in Westborough, Mass., boasted more than 130 used-book stores in 22 states, making it the seventh largest bookstore chain. When it was forced into Chapter 7 liquidation in 1990, six store owners purchased the name and logo and formed the Annie's Book Stop Association, to prevent anyone from coming in and charging them royalties (or franchising fees). As a result, more than 30 independents continue to operate under the Annie's name, mostly in New England. Although only a few new stores have opened in the intervening years, the earliest franchise stores turn 30 this year, and older stores continue to attract new owners.
The first Annie's (originally named Landry's Book Swap) opened in 1975 and operated out of Anne Tryon Adams's barn in Westborough. A year later Adams changed the name, then gradually substituted "Stop" for "Swap" soon after launching the franchise operation. When the original company went bankrupt, stores in California, Arizona, and Florida closed, but those that joined the association benefited from lower costs for the Annie's name, annual meetings to help with the direction of the stores, a joint anniesbooks.com Web site, and a loyal customer base of romance readers and other genre fiction as well as children's book buyers.
In November, longtime children's bookseller Patty Cryan became the latest Annie's owner, purchasing the store in Worcester, Mass. "I didn't want this store to go under," says Cryan, adding, "It was a lower risk to buy the store than to try to start something up from scratch." Even though Annie's stores are required to sell used books, offer store credit for gently used titles, and redeem other Annie's gift certificates, each store varies. All stores do their own buying.
For Cryan that has meant increasing new books, which now make up 10% to 15% of the inventory, and devoting a third of the selling space to children's. "My customers are used to having a discount. I can't get retail prices," says Cryan, who discounts all new titles. On the adult side, she's found that new trade paperbacks for book club picks work best. Hardcovers tend not to sell except new hardcover picture books at Christmas and for baby shower gifts. "It's really a matter of conditioning the neighborhood that this is a general bookstore, not a used-book store," says Cryan. To help change those perceptions, she set up an active schedule of events that includes weekly knitting nights, story times, and a daylong children's extravaganza on myths and magic.
Like other independents, Annie's stores meet competition from mass merchandisers and online retailers by emphasizing their ties to the community. The Annie's in Framingham, Mass., which Paul Ashton and his late wife, Jackie Kuhl, purchased 11 years ago, holds regular exhibits by local photographers; stocks new books by local authors, mostly self-published titles; and even holds meetings for selectman candidates. "It's a local store, and I have to try to get as much local publicity as I can," says Ashton. "You can get used books just as easily from Amazon or AbeBooks, if you don't want to browse and find things by serendipity. I have a CVS pharmacy right next to me, and they're selling more new books than I am."
ABSA secretary/administrator Paula Fox, who owns stores in Northborough and West Boylston, Mass., and was Adams's first employee, says, "I've had people mention that they try to come to me first because they want to shop local." Still, she's found, their support isn't enough to make up for declining sales. "I'm certainly not doing what I was doing 10 years ago," says Fox. "The competition that has caused most independents to close has affected us. I sell some new books, and I tell people I can order for them. But that happens less often because they use Amazon." In addition to genre fiction, one of her strongest categories is children's. Fox does well with preschool picture book classics and with school reading lists.
At her two stores in Nashua, N.H., ABSA president Nancy Zlotek, the first person to sign with Adams in 1981, does significantly more business with new books, 30%–35%, and orders weekly from distributors and publishers. "We always try to keep mass market paperbacks in new," says Zlotek, who stocks complete series for popular authors like Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum books. In addition, she rents hardcovers and audiobooks and added a recovery section. Now she's looking for other niches. "We want to be here for a while," she says, referring not just to her stores but to Annie's in general.