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February 23. 2013 1:24AM

Mike Cote's Business Editor's Notebook: Closing the book on Annie's


 


From left, Nancy Mitchell, owner of the Annie's Book Stop, employee Barbara Brandt and longtime customer Ellen Goupil gather at the store on Thursday in Manchester. (THOMAS ROY/UNION LEADER)


"Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter" is among the recent titles at Annie's Book Stop in Manchester. Longtime customer and city resident Ellen Goupil visited the store Thursday. (THOMAS ROY/UNION LEADER)


Nancy Mitchell, owner of Annie's Book Stop for the last 10 years of its 31-year history, prepares for a closing sale at the Mammoth Road store on Thursday in Manchester. (THOMAS ROY/UNION LEADER)

The customers at Annie's Book Stop are a curious sort. Like salon patrons who only want their favorite stylist to touch their hair, longtimers have been known to see which clerk's car is in the parking lot - and keep driving if they don't recognize it.

Some might be looking for Barbara Brandt, an avid reader who started working at the store 19 years ago. She has a knack for steering her regulars toward authors they might like based on who they've been reading.

"Are you Annie"? a woman asks on a recent day as she enters the store on 264 Mammoth Road.

"There is no Annie," Brandt says. "I'm just one of the girls."

There is no Annie here, and soon there will be no Annie's Book Stop in Manchester and only one in Nashua.

The world of iPads, Nooks and Kindles has been tough on businesses like Annie's, a used paperback bookstore that will shut down in Manchester at the end of March after more than 30 years of selling titles for half of their original cover price.

While the store's customers can sift through used books at thrift shops and the Book Cellar on Second Street - the sole remaining used bookstore in the city - they will have a tough time finding people like Brandt and owner Nancy Mitchell, a longtime employee who bought the store in 2003.

About two dozen independent Annie's shops continue to operate, primarily in New England. The other New Hampshire stores are in Concord, Nashua, South Nashua, Laconia, Petersborough and Rochester.

The Annie's chain was founded in the early '70s by Anne Tryon Adams, in Westborough, Mass., and once had more than 130 stores in 22 states, according to Publisher's Weekly. The stores were licensed as franchises, but after the parent company went bankrupt in 1987, they became connected through a nonprofit association.

Mitchell says the rise of digital books has reduced the number of young people who frequent the store, and higher gas prices, as well as the increasing price of books themselves, make older customers reluctant to come as much. Business had been declining in recent years, but over the past two, it became clear to her the store was no longer viable.

"We're not computer savvy. That kind of hurt us," Mitchell says. "It's very heartbreaking to come into work and have only six people come in for the whole day. Some Sundays we had no one come in."

The owner of the Nashua store plans to close the 112 Daniel Webster Highway store in South Nashua by early March and consolidate stock with the 493 Amherst St. location.

"We're hoping to get a larger location, but the landlord has been unresponsive," says Paul Goldsmith, who has been working for Annie's in Nashua for nearly 20 years. "It's still seems there's a market for used books. It just has to be done on a thinner margin now."

Since deciding to close, Mitchell has whittled her stock, but there are still between 15,000 and 20,000 books in the 1,200-square-foot store, which is sandwiched between a pawn shop and a Chinese restaurant. It's a place with narrow aisles and tall shelves brimming with New York Times fiction best sellers, science fiction and fantasy adventures (vampire books are still hot), children's picture books and the classics that draw high schoolers trying to find books on their school reading lists.

It's where Maya Angelou's "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" lives just a couple of shelves up from J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Return of the King" and across the aisle from Margaret Wise Brown's "Goodnight Moon." Best-selling authors like Stephen King, John Grisham, Suzanne Brockmann and New Hampshire author Jodi Picoult are displayed prominently in turnstile racks while at the end of the spectrum books by also-rans fill an old shopping cart where titles can be had for 75 cents each or three for $2.

Reducing store hours at the Manchester store and closing a couple of days a week to save money only served to alienate customers. Yet, still they came. People like Gary Cowette, who has been frequenting the store for seven years and has resisted the lure of the Kindle, the electronic device sold by Amazon, the online retailer that first made its mark by selling physical books - delivering a one-two punch to brick-and-mortar shops.

"Why would anyone want to pay $9.99 for a book online?" Cowette says, while looking for a book by Lisa Jackson. "You can buy some for 99 cents, but you can't find the authors you want."

At Annie's he finds even the dud books worth his trip. "You can find every author here. Sometimes it's a miss, but that's the fun part."

You can just bring it back and choose another, at usually half the list price. And if you're bringing in books to trade, you need not bring any cash.

Bette Nelson, a retired Manchester elementary school teacher, worked at the store on Sundays for 15 years until November and had a regular clientèle.

"I remember every book I've read. I remember the main characters. I remember the plot. And this goes back years and years," Nelson says. "So if someone wants to go to a different author, I can recommend another author who writes the same way."

While Mitchell is closing, she's going to have a hard time keeping her hands out of a bookstore and plans to help out at another Annie's. It's the air she breathes.

"I told the girl in Concord that whether she wanted me or not I'm coming up and working for her for a couple of days," Mitchell says. "I got to keep the atmosphere."


Mike Cote is business editor at the Union Leader. Contact him at 668-4321, ext. 324 or mcote@unionleader.com.


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