by Tiffany Borges
Jennifer Lesh is on a mission. It’s a mission she has customized over the years to allow for her young children and aging parents to remain a personal priority, but her drive to get books into the hands of readers remains vibrant.
Base camp for this mission is Annabel’s Books, a family business started by her parents and named for her maternal grandmother. While there may be occasional confusion for newcomers about which lady is Annabel, Lesh says longtime customers have grown accustomed to seeing her around the store since its inception in 1998. She worked alongside her mother, Carol Kinney, while the store was in Meta Rose Square.
Annabel’s is approaching its third anniversary in a new space, the former Waldenbooks store in a sprawling corner of the Carrs Mall. Parks and Glenn caught up to her on a recent crisp, sunny weekday morning to learn about her vision for the store and the reality of selling books amidst shifting dynamics. “Always morphing, that’s for sure,” said Lesh of the market and consumer expectations.
CATEGORY IS KING
If Fireside Books in neighboring Palmer is a boutique bookseller, Annabel’s might be described as Costco. Not just in style — Fireside is an anchor for Palmer’s downtown arthouse vibe — but in scope. While Fireside reports it has an impressive inventory of 16,000 books, Annabel’s boasts more than three times that onsite. Each stores’ shoppers are distinct, too, muses Lesh. “You look at their top ten bestsellers, categories-wise, and we overlap maybe on two of them. Palmer’s top category in a given month might be ‘English Literature from the 1600’s’, and Wasilla’s is ‘Mystery’.” Annabel’s shelves reflect that, with hundreds of shiny paperbacks ringing the rear of the store. Used books are her primary focus, although new titles are a mainstay in the Alaska & Homeschooling sections. She makes her selections based on years of aggregate sales data, her training as a corporate accountant, and requests from patrons.
“We hear a lot from the Young Adult, that teen market — we’re the only ones in the Valley who sell Manga, for example,” Lesh explained. While adults might use online bookstores to fulfill their definition of instant gratification, the discretionary income and foot traffic of teenagers equals the truly immediate customer. They know what they want and are a big segment of Annabel’s customers.
Lesh knows what to look for — some categories are so popular they stay on heavy rotation with those who seek them. “Sci Fi, Fantasy, those are just devoured, almost regardless of condition.” Other categories are valued for their irreplaceable sentiment. These needs are unique enough that Lesh’s eye, and that of her longtime employee Karla, seems be the vital ingredient. A memorable example was an issue of Alaska Geographic, the prolific monthly magazine which ended its thirty-year run in 2003. A gentleman came into her shop inquiring about a specific issue. The magazine itself was fairly beat up, and only a bookseller trained to know their demographic would have scooped it up. Annabel’s had it in stock. Its cover photo featured a strapping young logger, perched atop massive timber rounds. The man on the cover was the customer standing before her, some decades earlier in Alaska’s Interior. He had been searching off & on for many years and was quite pleased to get his hands on a copy, recalls Lesh.
FILLING THE SHELVES
With the tech explosion of the past ten years, some book buying and selling processes have been streamlined, while others remain all about boots on the ground and a personal touch. Lesh is well-versed in both, recalling her mother’s route of hand-delivering flyers to each school in the district to keep them aware of the local store’s readiness for Battle of the Books or similar events.
She crosses paths with books at the end of their lives, too. Due to federal policies and inefficient purchasing systems, this often comes sooner than necessary, according to Lesh. “Title I Schools receive mandatory funding for libraries and librarians. That’s a great thing, poorer schools get books. I’m all for it. But meanwhile, you have charter schools that don’t have funding for libraries.” Lesh contends that a publisher printing a new edition of a text shouldn’t trigger this process — replacing it across the district — without evaluating that process. “I have waiting lists for certain books and it just kills me to see them scrapped.” As a devoted shopper of the Borough surplus sales, she finds herself perplexed to see pallets of books which she knows have an eager local market — headed for destruction. Popular authors’ titles are being recycled en masse unless she appears at the right time & place to rescue them. In a time of purported statewide fiscal crisis and federal uncertainty, Lesh sees a few avenues that could provide books to readers, and she does her part to insert herself into their bounty.
Rather than losing business to Amazon.com, Lesh has built a symbiotic relationship with the online behemoth — regularly sending assortments of books to be stored in their warehouses and shipped directly to shoppers worldwide. She appreciates that this rather circuitous way of doing business still nets a local customer base — noting that a few sales directly from Amazon were shipped to Alaskans in the past month or so. “You know, Amazon lists the locale of a Seller, there as you’re choosing online, so I always say ‘thanks, Anchorage lady, glad we had that for ya.'”
She also receives requests from library patrons who desire to own a title which they’ve been compulsively borrowing from the library. “People will come in and say, ‘okay, I’ve checked this out sixteen times, I guess I need it as my own.’ People love their books, that’s for sure. We tell them it’s the best addiction they’ll ever have.”
In addition to knowing what her customers want, she stays attuned to how they like to get it, as well as pass it along to the next guy. A current trend with online commerce, such as Amazon Sellers, is a charitable option, with a portion of sales benefitting non-profit organizations. Again, her approach is organic and personalized, but meets the same need for shoppers to exercise their social conscience. Annabel’s has long trained high school students from the Next Step Program, who spend a year with her, learning the basics of employment and retail. She’s launching a corporate partnership, by which medical offices, auto mechanics, virtually anywhere one might be parked with a lap and a child, can subscribe to receive books each month. The books are intended to be taken home by families, then replaced from her inventory, to keep a fresh rotation of beloved childrens’ books circulating in the Valley.
Another aspect of her new location which Lesh will be enhancing is the artistic presence. “I definitely miss the seasonal rhythm, that crew and our events,” she said, speaking of fellow merchants in Meta Rose Square with whom she often partnered to host craft fairs or visits from Santa. She sees her new space as a palette which has been painstakingly organized — now to be decked out bit, and is excited to launch some craft and gift lines soon. She’s open to homeschool book swaps, literary workshops, or even open-mic style events, and encourages anyone curious about use of their space to contact her. Lesh says the recent Christmas holiday, coupled with visitation of flu season, gave her ample time for reflection and rejuvenation. It’s in that spirit that she looks ahead to her fourth year in the expanded store: nurturing her family first — while peddling books as fast as she can, into the hands and homes of her townsfolk.