By Nancy Carver Singleton
NEWTON —In a world full of change, Newton shoppers have been able to count on one thing: Phil Anderson III will usually be there to greet and assist them at Anderson Book & Office Supply as he has since joining the family business in 1958.
“Customers ask me how long I’ve been here and when I tell them 60-plus years they can’t believe it. We kind of laugh about it,” Anderson, 86, said. Asked what he enjoys about so many years in retailing he said, “It keeps my mind active. I know a lot of the customers. Since I am the oldest retailer on Main Street, I get a lot of people asking questions about historic things.”
His store is also the oldest retail business in Newton. The store has been at the corner of Broadway and Main streets since 1938, with two previous locations. The 127-year old business was started by Anderson’s grandfather, Philip Murray Anderson, and his great-grandmother, Clarissa. They opened a newsstand serving food for Santa Fe railroad passengers in 1892, moving into a building eight years later. Phillip Murray’s son—Phil E.—went to work at the store in 1931 after graduating from the University of Kansas.
Phil Anderson III spent three semesters at the University of Kansas before being drafted. A general who needed someone who could type on a manual typewriter brought him to Fort Hood in Texas. After two years Anderson returned to Kansas with wife Jan to finish his business degree at what was then the Municipal University of Wichita while she worked at Boeing Airplane Company.
Anderson recalls that Newton’s downtown thrived in the late 1950s. “When I started we had four shoe stores, nine ladies ready-to-wear, at least three men’s clothing stores plus we had Montgomery Ward, Woolworths and Penneys. That was the case with all (larger town’s) Main Streets. That shows you how retailing has changed over the years, not just in Newton.” People then made most purchases locally. “Before everyone had an automobile it was a treat to go to Wichita socially, but not so much to shop in those days.” When he began working there the store carried books, school supplies, office supplies, 78 rpm records and some sporting goods.
Students purchased school books then and Anderson’s was the only place in Newton selling and repurchasing those books. The store also did a huge business in back-to-school supplies, packaging items for each grade. “I can’t believe how many people say ‘I remember buying school supplies here,’ “Anderson said. The store continues the back-to-school packets for Newton schools and offered them to Halstead and Hesston students last year for the first time.
For decades the store carried fiction and nonfiction books, but reduced its titles because of competition from chain stores. Today Anderson’s still has a number of books for young children, but the adult section focuses on Kansas and cookbooks.
His store carries a full stock of office and school supplies along with puzzles, greeting cards, magnets, fountain pens, lanyards, historic prints and postcards of Newton. The biggest sellers are high school letter jackets and patches, Melissa & Doug toys and sports memorabilia. “You have to have niches to survive in retailing.” Anderson’s began taking passport photos when Newton’s camera store closed.
The fifth-generation business is also aided by its eBay 1892 store. Anderson’s son Murray, 59, started it in 2006 along with doing the store’s bookkeeping and running his own businesses. “With all the changes in retailing on Main Street it has been a boon for us to be active on the Internet,” Phil Anderson said. Their eBay store specializes in hard-to-find items such as carbon paper, columnar paper, small lots of resume paper, unusual colors of markers and pens, store tap bells, personalized rubber stamps and several dozen types of typewriter ribbons. Typewriter ribbons are shipped worldwide and they have received thank you notes from people happy to find them again.
His family has long supported Newton’s athletic teams. His grandfather financed and supplied uniforms for black and Mexican basketball teams before they could play on Newton’s regular high school teams starting in the late 1940s. Memorial money for Anderson’s father was used to establish the Newton High School Hall of Fame. Anderson himself has bought season tickets for Newton High School basketball and football games for 61 years. Some old Newton High School trophies are displayed at the store, brought there when the school ran out of display space.
New customers are often intrigued by Anderson’s interior. There are balconies, a metal ceiling, ceiling fans and radiators. “The older customers remember growing up with stores like this, the five-and-dime stores with long narrow aisles where everything was on a personal basis,” he said.
His store continues the personal customer service of long-ago businesses. “I think the survival of a business like our’s is the convenience and that we are family oriented. The first thing we tell a new clerk is get up and ask if you can help them. Customers aren’t used to that,” Anderson said.
Contact Nancy Carver Singleton at email@example.com