Tessa Freeman
Tessa Freeman (on couch), Sara Putman (behind couch) and Doc of Bookish in Fort Smith

Those trying to do something productive during a pandemic could do worse than picking up a book. And while many have done just that, book sales have been erratic nationally the past few months, and bookstores in Arkansas are learning to deal with a new no-touch normal in the visual, but also historically tactile, world of books. 

WordsWorth Books, an institution in Little Rock’s Heights for decades, has been offering curbside pickup and free home delivery in the city for orders over $25. These new services “both have been critical components,” said Lia Lent, manager and co-owner with Tom McGowan for the past three years of WordsWorth. “Business has decreased, mostly due to the cancelation of author events,” she said, but, she added, “we are holding our own.” WordsWorth was a Paycheck Protection Program [PPP] loan recipient and hasn’t had to furlough any employees.

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Lent said online orders are up “significantly,” and the shop has also seen an increase in customers shipping books to friends and family members. WordsWorth is now closed on Sundays and has shortened its hours to better handle its shipping orders.

Using an online scheduling system, the store has been open for private browsing —one individual or family at a time — but is now open up for general browsing of up to eight people. Inside WordsWorth, the layout has been changed to allow for socially distant shopping, with fewer bookcases and furniture. “We hope that continuing to provide individually customized service will help us through this,” Lent said.

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In Pope County, Russellville’s Dog Ear Books opened its doors in winter 2016. “Though we focus mainly on new books, we do have a used and discount section,” owner Emily Young said. “We also keep fun bookish items in stock like candles, socks, bookmarks, [and] mugs. Anything literary, we try and put on our shelves.

“My mother, Pat, and I decided to open up in downtown Russellville right on Main Street because we felt that was where a bookstore was needed — no downtown is complete without a bookstore,” she said. Dog Ear closed to the public March 20, but continued selling books online through Bookshop.org. Bookshop, Young said, is a website “set up to give us little guys a chance to push back against Amazon — or ‘the River,’ as my mom calls it.” 

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How does Bookshop work? “Basically, when you’re an affiliate with them, a percentage of every purchase bought through your store’s link goes to you,” Young said. “So, we get the benefit while Bookshop handles the payment, shipping, returns — everything. They also have a pool where 10 percent of all sales are divided among small bookstores, affiliates or not. It has helped us tremendously during this time.”

And while Young called Bookshop “a godsend,” she noted that Dog Ear’s sales since the outbreak have dropped “by about 70 percent.” For a few weeks, the shop reduced operating hours and offered curbside pickup and delivery before going strictly to online sales. “We did cut two part-time employees when we shut down to the public,” she said. “Though they were never let go; they just weren’t scheduled. We were lucky enough to get our PPP very quickly, so we began paying everyone their normal wages immediately — because we wouldn’t be where we are without our team.”

Dog Ear reopened May 11 for curbside pickup and book delivery “just to ease back into things,” Young said. “We’ve not yet begun letting customers back in, but we plan to as soon as we get our shipment of gloves, masks and sanitizer in.” They’ll also limit foot traffic. “Luckily,” she said, Dog Ear “is quite big, and we don’t usually have a ton of traffic at once.”

The Russellville area’s literary community has come through with support for Dog Ear, Young added: “From kind words of encouragement, to someone giving us their church tithe, to our Main Street organization using grant money to help downtown businesses survive, and everything in between. It’s not been easy, but they remind us why it’s worth it.”

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Sara Putman, owner of Bookish in downtown Fort Smith, furloughed her employees the week before spring break, after the Fort Smith branch of the University of Arkansas canceled classes: “It was just me, and it was hard — physically and mentally.” 

There’s been a downtick in sales at Bookish, Putman said, but “it hasn’t been drastic. March was pretty bad. April was only a little off, and we were only open three hours a day.” With full-time hours back in effect at the shop, Putman says she has gloves available for customers, has placed hand sanitizer around the shop and will have masks — regular ones for patrons to use “and cute ones to purchase.” 

Already located in a “kind of small space,” Bookish is limiting its number of customers to five at a time – while simultaneously hoping that such crowd-control measures are actually needed. “Today [Monday, May 11] was our first day to be open full-time again,” she said. But as of mid-afternoon, no one had come in.

Rachel Rodeman
The Harry Potter shelf at Bookish in Fort Smith

“The only reason we’re still here is we did get a PPP loan. But that’s only until June 1,” Putnam said. However, she notes this isn’t the first rough patch for Bookish, which will celebrate its second anniversary this August. “Last summer was the flood. And we’ve been through [threats like] this before, with Kindles and ebooks.” 

But is a fundamental change coming to the way bookstores and readers interact? “I really hope not. We’re selling books, but we’re still missing the community aspect of a bookstore right now,” Putman said. “We’ve been doing some pretty creative things just to let people know we’re still here. Buying a book is not like buying toilet paper online. And Barrie, our bookstore cat, is alive and well.

“Who knows what next week will bring? It’s literally day by day.”