Imagine your average big-box office supply and stationery store—say, Office Depot. Its wares likely include assortments of paper, notebooks and folders, electronics and, of course, a row of shelves relegated for pencils and pens. They have all the affordable standards, Pilot G2s, Paper Mates, the package of 500 Bics you always lose within a week. The “fancy” pens sit alone on a single shelf in the corner. If you were to ask the well-meaning salesperson (understandably trained more in general store operations than pen details) what ink refill will fit best with your pen of choice, you might end up waiting five minutes for him or her to find the answer to your question in a catalogue. And that’s best case scenario.
Anderson Pens is another office supplies store whose location is in the heart of downtown Appleton, but comparing it with Office Depot beyond their identifying features would be a haphazard assessment, for the local store’s owners, Brian and Lisa Anderson, say its target audience and specialized products completely differentiates it competitively.
Anderson Pens, rather, focuses on all things pen, and very high-quality pens at that. Its storefront, which might be mistaken for a jewelry store at first glance, has a wide variety of upscale fountain, ballpoint and rollerball pens under glass displays. Some pens are in the expected $10-or-fewer range, but they generally range from $45 to as much as $5,400. In fact, I found myself embarrassed during the interview to take notes on my pedestrian Pilot G2 knockoff, as though wearing sweatpants to an Opera house, in comparison to the gilded works of art the store displayed.
Meanwhile, an entire wall is devoted to ink alone, which Lisa says has “about 1,000 different colors” to choose from.
“You buy from Office Depot or Staples because you want something fairly generic, and you want it as cheaply as possible,” Lisa says. “It’s not really the kind of place where you go to buy something nice. It’s where you go get your printer paper or toner and your tape.”
Still, Anderson Pens has something for writers of all income levels wanting to start a collection.
“We try to have products in every price point,” Lisa says, “but we sell more of [the expensive pens] than you’d think. There are a number of collectors in the area.”
According to the Andersons, the store owes its success to the surprisingly small number of pen stores in the country.
“There’s very few physical brick-and-mortar pen stores in the United States,” Brian says. “Maybe two handfuls. Maybe. For us, there is no competition north of Chicago.”
The store’s primary markets are either gift-givers or a small, but enthusiastic subculture of loyal pen collectors. Pen enthusiasts converge on online forums such as Fountain Pen Network, Fountain Pen Geeks and Reddit. In fact, Brian hosted a Reddit “Ask Me Anything” in 2014 on r/fountainpens, which garnered 122 comments. Those in the pen fandom might also meet up at pen conventions to meet up with others in the pen community across the country.
Next year, the Andersons plan to attend 15 pen shows. Not only does this open up their business nationwide, but exposure from the pen shows leads to more traction toward their online- and brick-and-mortar store.
“I think that when people live in an area that doesn’t have a pen store, when there’s a pen show, we can bring the product to them,” Lisa Anderson says. “They meet us, there’s some interaction in person, and I believe they’re more likely to buy from us online because they know us.”
Brian elaborates, saying that the outside marketing brings pen enthusiasts to the physical store from all over the Midwest.
“People who love fountain pens, they will travel from Michigan, Minneapolis and Chicago … to visit our pen store,” Brian says.
The Andersons don’t see much point in directly competing with big-box stores, which is why they avoided offering standard inexpensive pens, instead sticking to what they do best.
“There are so few products that overlap between us and the big-box stores, and that’s partly on purpose,” Lisa Anderson says. “We’ve been approached by brands you can find at Target, like a Pilot G2, but there’s no point in competing with Target. You want a 24-box of cheap pens, you go to Office Depot. If you want one nice gift, you come to us.”
The Andersons say another benefit of the store versus buying high-quality pens elsewhere is the depth of pen information their employees can provide. In fact, Lisa says each employee brings their own stationery specialties that shapes the advice they provide.
“Each of us comes from a different background and a different perspective,” Lisa Anderson says. “Brian and I have a favorite kind of brand called Sailor. Chris likes Sailors and Pilots [and] is big into paper. I tend to specialize in ink.”
“[Dave’s] very good with the ballpoints and the roller balls,” Brian Anderson responds. “I have speciality in vintage pens going back to the 1880s, 1940s-’50s, and I do repairs on those.”
“Here, you get personalized attention, you get salespeople who are knowledgeable and it’s a very hands-on experience,” Lisa Anderson says.
The Andersons didn’t expect for the business to catch on so well in the Fox Cities and elsewhere, they were just in the right place at the right time after expanding their online store to a physical location in 2013.
“We opened partly because we need to get all our stuff out of the house, and we were hoping it would get us a little more separation because when it’s in your house, you don’t ever stop [working],” Lisa Anderson says. “Didn’t quite work out that way, but we were pleasantly surprised how excited people were in the area. After Conkey’s closed [in 2009], there was really nothing like this downtown and people … were looking for something along those lines, and that helped fill the niche a little bit.”
Anderson Pens plays a unique and important role in the community as well, Lisa says, thanks to its out-of-state visitors curious about what else the Fox Cities has to offer. Because of this, Anderson Pens is many people’s first introduction to the Fox Cities.
“We have a lot of people come over from Minneapolis, and they don’t just come to our store and leave, they want to know where to eat. We have a little brochure showing where else to stop. They eat once they shop down town, then they go to the mall,” Lisa Anderson says. “Our little store can sometimes impact half a dozen other local businesses.”
Anderson Pens is located at 10 E. College Ave. Suite 112A and is open from 9:30 a.m.–5:30 p.m. weekdays and 10 a.m.–2 p.m. Saturdays.