Buying books in our digital world is easier than ever.
We’re getting faster and easier ways to get the latest stories, especially from the bookstore giants Amazon and Barnes & Noble, with e-book devices and apps, audiobook services, and those listservs that alert big readers to fleeting deals , ways to snag books at super prices, low prices and then start reading or listening to them right away on their smartphones.
Overall, the many options have led to a reduction in the number of bookshops open nationwide. Some sources say the number is about half what it was in 1997. And when you classify by independent bookstores, it’s no longer a given that every city has a non-Barnes & Noble bookstore.
But in Northwest Arkansas, we have a variety of independent bookstores.
Avid readers do everything they can to support these local institutions that provide community in the form of book clubs, author events, and the simple yet effective face-to-face connection of recommendations and discussions about your next good read.
In 2018, Monica Diodati and Rachel Stuckey-Slaton booked the common room at the Onyx Coffee Lab in Bentonville for two days, laying out around 150 or 200 books and selling them to people passing through.
Many of the titles came from their personal collection, things they had read or that friends and family had once owned, and some gifts. They were mostly used books, and they came with small paper labels on the back with handwritten numbers.
The whole production was a way to bring into play the possibility of something they had long debated as members of the book club that formed their friendship: opening an independent bookstore in Bentonville, which didn’t have one at the time.
“The idea of a pop-up event was low stakes, and we’ve done it a few times,” says Diodati. At the time, she missed The Wild Detectives, a bookstore/bar/venue in Dallas, a place she frequented while living in the area. She describes it as a sort of second living room where you could grab a glass of wine and sit down to read.
Diodati was surprised to find that pop-up book sales felt good and not scary, unlike what she imagined when she first opened a store.
“We weren’t retail bosses,” says Rachel Stuckey-Slaton, laughing. They didn’t track inventory yet, nor did they have a retail background, so they faced a tremendous learning curve dipping their toes into the book retail ecosystem.
A small Dallas publisher sent Diodati and Slaton a box of best-sellers, giving them a chance to expand their selection without risking too much money if they didn’t sell everything.
“They said, ‘Here, take these and sell them; we love what you do and hope one day you can have a shop,'” Stuckey-Slaton recalled. The small publishers proved to be ideal partners because they took part in the work of elevating authors’ voices, she says.
After a few pop-ups, the couple set up a semi-permanent space by taking over a small corner in front of Airship Coffee in Bentonville.
“There was a group that was excited to have a bookstore in Bentonville, and it gave us confidence that the customers were amazing and supportive,” says Diodati. The biggest supporters called and requested things they hadn’t already offered directly, such as a customized basket of books to give to a colleague.
In the meantime, they received a lot of help learning the supply chain from previous booksellers like Lisa Sharp of Fayetteville’s beloved Nightbird Books and existing bookstores like Common Place in Oklahoma City. They created accounts with publishers, joined the American Booksellers Association, and learned the backend, the more business-oriented aspects, in no time.
A regular place to sell their books opened the gates to more community-focused events, starting with a Saturday morning children’s story hour, open mic nights, poetry workshops and author readings.
Two friends made the leap to Southwest B Street in Bentonville and secured a little brick and mortar for themselves just as the pandemic went into full lockdown, but they found it didn’t negatively impact their sales.
“The industry has developed really well. People were stuck at home wanting to get another book,” says Stuckey-Slaton. Adapting to safety measures meant only two people could safely browse the store at a time and they asked every customer to wear a mask. Stuckey-Slaton and Diodati took advantage of the passageway next to their shop and built a patio/deck to allow for safer gatherings.
They also created the Sospeso board, an Italian tradition of paying for a friend’s coffee or book and leaving it at the store to pick up at their leisure, to keep people connected even when they’re out distance.
That year, Two Friends moved to its largest location to date as part of 8th Street Market, where they doubled their shelf space. They also have a presence at other locations around the city, including the Blake Street Library, curating sale selections for Bloom Flowers and Gifts and BRIKA and Wylde Pop-Up.
“The most exciting thing was the (change to) children’s area,” says Diodati. “We have so many families with children that the demand was there. We’ve had such limited real estate before that it’s nice to have an entire area where kids can lie on a rug and read… or a 12-year-old can sit at the (coffee) bar and finish the next one in a row .”
A year and a few months ago, Leah and Daniel Jordan were preparing for the first day of Pearl’s Books. The bookstore was scheduled to open on October 2nd on Center Street in Fayetteville, just off Downtown Square. They felt a very welcoming anticipation and opened their doors in mid-September.
“We were in the ‘It would be fun…’ phase for years,” says Daniel Jordan. “We dreamed of something like this. We thought, ‘Maybe when we retire… or never.’”
The pandemic has changed the way the Jordans think. The couple worked from home and it changed everything they thought about their careers. They were both academic advisors on the University of Arkansas campus, and while they enjoyed the work and the people around them, they’d been at the concerts for a while.
Being away from the office changed the perspective of what her working life might be like. It made Daniel Jordan think it might just be the right time to try a dream job — but not without a little convincing.
“Leah has always been the dreamer in the relationship that drives us forward,” he says. “She finds it easy to imagine and take action.” But Daniel, the more pragmatic, was slower to come to. “I had never owned a company before. I wanted to stay in my comfort zone.”
Leah’s vision for a store, coupled with the pandemic bringing perspective to the big picture, and the closure of Nightbird Books converged and gave Daniel confidence that Fayetteville needed a new bookstore.
What they wanted to create, along with more autonomy over their own lives, was a community room.
“We wanted to feel involved with the community, as part of something bigger than ourselves, but still put our stamp on it,” says Daniel Jordan. Local writers contacted them, and the events took place immediately. “That was a surprise for us … with not much range. They found us, (which) was proof that we need this. We didn’t force anything, it was a very natural thing.”
Leah Jordan found her current location as she spun around to comfort her baby. The space that had previously been the olive oil store Cask and Grove seemed just right: a little removed from the square but still close enough to high-traffic areas; not too big; with good accessibility.
Figuring out which books to take was harder because there are so many options. The containment felt a bit overwhelming at first, says Daniel Jordan. Pearl found guidance and a supportive community at Two Friends, Wordsworth Books in Little Rock, and other bookstores across the country.
“We get better (at selection) by figuring out what people like and buying trends in what people are buying,” he adds, not just national bestsellers.
The four other employees help to add variety to the books they order, as they all have their own preferences and knowledge. Leah’s strong genres are historical fiction, high fantasy, cookbooks, and children’s books. Daniel enjoys memoirs, horror, literary fiction, and anything characterized by characters.
Being the person who sorts books into the appropriate genres really is one of the most challenging aspects of a bookstore, says Jordan, second only to accounting, of course. Once he realized that deciding what genre a book belongs in is pure marketing, the task became easier. If he thinks it might sell better in a different category, go for it.
In their first year of operation, Jordan says, they’ve seen lots of literary fiction, local books, romance, sci-fi, and fantasy fly off the shelves. Their clients also include more young adults and college students than they thought.
As they continue to learn and grow in the bookselling business, the Jordans enjoy being a piece of the puzzle in the community of local readers.
“We achieved our goal of making it a place that people think of when they think of reading and gathering together,” says Jordan. Baby showers, bridal showers and even a wedding have all taken place at their shop.
“We’re not an events center, but the fact that people think of us as doing that means people are already connecting with Pearl’s. Keeping growing is really important.”
Poetry Book Club is the first Sunday of the month.
Mystery Book Club is the last Wednesday of the month at 5pm and is currently reading “Verity” by Colleen Hoover.
Horror Book Club is the last Thursday of the month and is currently reading “Ruins” by Scott Smith.
The Two Friends Book Club, which got its start while they were in the airship location, is held at 6:00 p.m. on the first Tuesday of every month. Ryan Lee Wong’s “Which Side Are You On” is currently being read.
“We will start a Pearl’s Book Club with a selection of Pearl’s associates in the new year.”