- IN THE BOOK BUSINESS: Lia Lent and Tom McGowan, the new owners of WordsWorth Books in the Heights.
It looked for a while like even the most beloved of local bookstores would go swirling away down the Amazon, swamped as they were by cheap online sales and the rise of convenient e-books. There are, however, still a few examples that have hung on, mostly through a combination of customer service and local loyalty.
Luckily for Little Rock, that increasingly short list includes Words-Worth Books & Co. in the Heights. In business for over 35 years, WordsWorth has not only weathered the economic storms that have buffeted and sunk many independent booksellers, it has managed to attract new owners who are committed to keeping the friendly, cozy feel that has kept the place alive, even with two Barnes & Noble Bookstores within a five-mile radius.
Lia Lent and Tom McGowan, both longtime WordsWorth customers, bought the bookstore from owner Jean Cazort and officially took the reins June 1. Lent, who has been shopping at WordsWorth for over 20 years, said things have been going smoothly so far as they learn the business from Cazort, who has stayed on as an employee to help them learn the ropes.
Lent said she decided to buy the bookstore for a reason that will be familiar to any bibliophile who has ever wished upon a star: Running a bookstore sounded like fun. "If you like to read books and you like to talk about books, what could be better than owning a bookstore?" she said. "There's the business end of it, which is not so dreamy. Was it the draw of becoming rich? No. ... I think it was the opportunity to bring in good books, bring in new customers, serving the needs of existing customers." Little Rock, Lent said, deserves a great independent bookstore.
That doesn't mean, however, that she and McGowan are sitting around in easy chairs, reading all day. There are still real challenges for the business.
"I think things have stabilized somewhat for bookstores," she said. "The economic headwinds are still pretty strong. Ten years ago, they were closing hundreds and hundreds [of bookstores] a year, but there's been a resurgence. It seemed like it was an opportune time."
Lent said her goal is to build on the legacy of the store, continuing to cultivate the community of local readers while expanding opportunities for customers to share, talk about and experience new books. Lent said changes will be coming, but they will be small and undramatic. For example, they've changed the hours — from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. to 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. — to allow people coming home from work to stop in and browse. The name will subtly change, too, from WordsWorth Books & Co. to Words-Worth Bookstore. They'll also rearrange the store somewhat to set aside space for classes and workshops. Lent said she plans to survey customers to identify areas where the store can expand its titles, and may host topical book clubs.
"We still want to focus, as Jean has, on Arkansas writers and give them a prominent place," Lent said. "We're planning to do more in-store events and activities." Lent said the store will also continue to build on its close relationship with the Clinton School of Public Service, partnering with it on author events and readings by the nationally known writers who lecture there.
Lent said the fact that WordsWorth has survived past challenges — including the rise of big-box booksellers, Amazon.com, the 2008 recession and the shift to e-books — is remarkable, and it says a lot about the customers who frequent the store and their support for local businesses.
"The exciting thing," Lent said, "is that people are reading — reading and talking and sharing; talking about new ways of writing. It all contributes to the quality of life in our community."