words: Marla Cantrell
images: courtesy Bookish via Rachel Rodemann Photography
In the summer of 2017, Sara Bruns Putman recommended a book to her friend, Jennifer Batchelor Battles. This was not an uncommon occurrence, since both women are avid readers.
The book is You Are a Badass: How to Stop Doubting Your Greatness and Start Living an Awesome Life by author and success coach Jen Sincero, which has sold more than two million copies. It arrived in Jennifer’s hands at a time when she was considering shaking things up. She and Sara had also been reading other transformative books, such as The Road Back to You by Ian Morgan Cron and Suzanne Stabile.
For years, Jennifer had taught English at Alma High School, where Sara taught the same subject. When they talked, it was often about books they’d discovered. When they taught, they naturally advocated for students to become lifelong readers.
Shortly after finishing Jen Sincero’s book, Jennifer told Sara she’d been thinking of leaving the classroom to open an independent bookstore. Already, she’d contacted Arkansas Tech’s Small Business and Technology Development Center, a free service that helps aspiring entrepreneurs achieve their goals.
A day after Jennifer shared her news, a text came. When you get a chance, I want to talk to you about something, Sara had written, and Jennifer, a bit wary, set a date to do just that.
Maybe Sara thought her idea was crazy, Jennifer thought. Maybe she’d try to talk her out of it. When they met on a Sunday afternoon, Sara seemed nervous, and after chatting for a bit, she said, “I’d like to be your partner.”
“I cannot convey how nervous I was to have that conversation with Jennifer,” Sara says. “The bookstore was her dream, one she’d had for a long time, and I was asking to be part of it. But I felt like I could give her a nudge, that we could work well together, and I’d been having that feeling myself that something had to give in my life.”
“It hadn’t occurred to me that anyone else would want to give up the security of their life to do this, but it made perfect sense. I need her, and she needs me,” Jennifer says.
Sara steps in. “I’d wanted to be a bigger part of the community, and I’d had business ideas myself, so it didn’t come out of the blue for me. We realized we couldn’t teach and run a bookstore, so we decided to go all-in, stop teaching, and devote everything we had to Bookish.”
Bookish is the name of their brick and mortar store located at 115 North 10th Street, beside AJ’s Oyster House, in downtown Fort Smith, Arkansas. It is set to open August 11, a Saturday that happens to be Jennifer’s mom’s (Linda Batchelor) birthday.
Linda played a pivotal role in Jennifer’s life, filling her childhood with books, reading to her when she was too young to read to herself. When Jennifer decided on a career, it was in education, just like her mom who spent forty-four years teaching elementary school and has a master’s degree in reading.
When the store opens, Linda will be helping in the children’s department, offering story time for the littlest readers, taking them on adventures far and wide.
“I love what’s going on here; I love the focus on the arts,” Sara says. Jennifer agrees. “With the explosion of the Unexpected mural project and the art that’s happening here, there’s no reason Fort Smith and the River Valley shouldn’t have a bigger literary culture. It may sound like pie in the sky, but we believe there will be a time when widely-known names in the literary world come to Fort Smith, a lot like what’s happening in Tulsa with Magic City Books.”
Magic City Books is an independent bookstore owned by the non-profit Tulsa Literary Coalition and home to Booksmart Tulsa, which has been presenting author events for nearly a decade. Literary giants including Rick Bragg, Elizabeth Gilbert, Dorothea Benton Frank, and Stephen King have come to read their work, drawing crowds from across the region. On October 8, Jodi Picoult will be reading in Tulsa from her new book, A Spark of Light.
Jennifer and Sara know it will take time to build the future they see. That starts with getting the area excited about Bookish, the only independent shop in Fort Smith exclusively selling new books. The buzz has been building as the two have shared their progress on social media.
The shop has come together over the summer, and today sun is streaming through the tall bank of windows that line one side of their building. A new floor that looks like polished barn wood is down. Most of the walls are bright white, the children’s area is waiting for its new mural, and a separate room is ready to host small groups.
Most of the furnishings are vintage purchased locally from places like Bell Star Antiques and Wasted. But they did splurge on two new settees where customers can sit and chat or read a few pages of a book they’re considering.
As for the books, they’ve been working on a list for opening day that meets their high standards. The two are so widely read that they seem to know nearly every current author, what they write, and which audience they appeal to.
For them, it’s not much different from teaching. They still see themselves as educators, only now their classroom is a bookstore, and their students range in age from one to one hundred. Each day they’re open, they’ll be guiding folks toward books that will encourage, or explain new ideas, or show them how connected we are to people who may live an ocean away.
That’s what happened to Jennifer as a young girl, when her mother read to her as a small child and encouraged her when she could read on her own. “I was in the library’s summer reading program every year. I’ve always been the person who has to settle down with a book before I can fall asleep. I’ve traveled the world in those pages, even though my roots have been pretty firmly planted here. I used to see reading as an escape but lately I’ve been seeing it as social change, how to see another person’s perspective.”
Sara says, “I would grab my mom’s paperbacks, mostly biographies, and read them after she finished. I remember having slumber parties and reading books like Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume. I think I was pretty nerdy. It was a way to get away.”
Sara leans forward in her chair. “I love it when you read a character and you say, ‘That’s exactly what I was feeling.’”
Jennifer says, “One of Sara’s strengths is her open-mindedness, her thoughtfulness in every situation. She doesn’t rush to an opinion, whereas I have an opinion right off the bat. She’s helped me to slow down and think.”
The talk turns to what Bookish can offer. It will be a community of book lovers, of those who are just starting to read, or those rediscovering the printed page.
They’ve been asked if they can compete with the pricing Amazon offers. The short answer is no. But there is so much else they’ll be giving. The hands-on experience of book shopping, the advice from experts, the knowledge that you’re shopping local.
Recently, a woman named Amy walked in while they were hard at work. She’d heard about Bookish and couldn’t wait to meet the women behind it. Amy said, “I can’t wait for you to open. I love libraries but I cheat on them with bookstores.”
They laugh as they tell the story. The woman belonged to their tribe. They can’t wait to meet others like her, who want to create a literary explosion in this town on the river, where so much good is happening.
Bookish opens August 11, at 115 North 10th Street, Fort Smith, Arkansas. Check Bookish out on Facebook, Instagram, and at bookishfs.com.
For more on Arkansas Tech’s Small Business and Technology Development Center, visit atu.edu/asbtdc.