The Unexpected arts festival is having a somewhat unexpected impact on at least one local business.
Snooper’s Barn Used Books owner Janice Wade at 208 Towson Ave. in downtown Fort Smith said she has seen an increase in foot traffic since the multi-building, Southwest-design mural by Add Fuel of Portugal was painted in October.
For many, the Snooper’s Barn is more than just a used book store. Those who find the walls of books and vintage magazines in the 6,255-square-foot store also find a treasure trove of knowledge, entertainment and ideas.
People are not just reading the books though. In today’s world, with audio books and digital books, real books have become somewhat of a novelty again.
Photographers use her walls of books for picture backgrounds, including the hypnotizing walls of National Geographics that date back to the 1940s.
Interior designers buy her books to decorate homes.
Hobbyists buy the books to make into other things to put on the walls. Wade said there used to be two long walls with thousands of old hardback Readers Digest books. Now, there is only a small wall left with maybe a hundred or so of old Readers Digests because of so many crafty people. But thousands and thousands of other books, new and used, remain on just about any topic imaginable.
People who have never visited Snooper’s Barn have come into the store because of the mural, she added. But the mural has also helped attract customers who have not been there in a long time.
“It’s especially great for people who are traveling,” Wade said. “They can see the mural from the stop lights and they’ll come and check it it out. And there are people who travel and stop at every used book store they can find.”
What they’ll find is a store that still does business the old-fashioned way. There are no debit card or credit card machines and no computers at Snooper’s Barn. There are nearby banks, however, with cash machines for those without folding money.
“We thoughtfully activate areas that will benefit the community not just culturally but also economically,” writes Claire Kolberg, director of the Unexpected. “One of my favorite aspects of the artwork is when you get out and explore it, you inevitably discover new or forgotten spaces in the surrounding areas.”
Kolberg calls the Snooper’s Barn a “gem” in Fort Smith and the overall feedback from the Unexpected team this past festival in October 2018 was that the store offers “unique finds in a unique space that really captures the heart of locally owned business and what makes Fort Smith special.”
Wade said there has been a Snooper’s Barn Used Books in Fort Smith for more than 50 years. At one time, there were two Snooper’s Barn stores on Garrison Avenue but at some point prior to the Wades purchasing the business in April 2000, the stores were consolidated into the one store at 208 Towson Ave. Richard Wade passed away in September 2000, only a few months after the couple bought the business. The Wades moved from Kansas City, Missouri, in the 1970s and worked for Mid-America Industries. While they moved away for awhile, they kept their property here and moved back to Fort Smith and bought Snooper’s Barn from Larry Brandenburg.
Fort Smith area book hounds who know Snooper’s Barn from their childhood days often take comfort knowing the store is still around, Wade said. And they’re introducing their children to some of the same magic they felt when their parents brought them.
“It’s become a generational thing, and that’s nice to see,” Wade said.
Older customers also have stories about what the building used to hold.
The two-story building that is occupied by Snooper’s Barn on Towson was built in 1920 as a furniture store with a side room for medical equipment, Wade said. Upstairs, during World War II, a big band dance hall emerged for soldiers, she added. Across the street at the time there were wrestling matches for a fun-filled Saturday night out on the town.
It’s not safe to walk around upstairs anymore though. Along with items left over from the Brandenburg days, Wade has seen a big oval of peeling paint that was likely a backdrop for the big bands when it was a dance hall.
A representative for Westphal Properties said the buildings next to Snooper’s Barn are largely used for storage by tenants, but could potentially be renovated using historical tax credits and Opportunity Zone funds.
While books are easy to find by category, author and title, Wade is quick to help anyone who may not know exactly what they’re looking for; even a child who can’t recall much other than what the book was about.
“I can always help a kid find a book,” she said with confidence. “I just keep asking them questions until we find out what it is.”
For others, it can be a browser’s haven. And apparently the books are pretty cheap, even compared with Amazon.com.
“You can always find a book you can afford here,” Wade said. “Some are only a nickel.”
With so much space in the two-story building, Wade is able to hold onto books for a long time if they are not best sellers. Fiction, nonfiction, historical fiction, westerns, biographies, autobiographies, true crime, dystopia, horror and anything else can be found there.
The mural was painted with help from a donation by one of Bennie Westphal’s businesses, Foundation Life Insurance Co. of Arkansas. Westphal Properties purchased the row of buildings from Brandenburg.
The opening of Fort Smith Coffee Co. two blocks away also helped improve business, Wade added. The coffee shop opened up in an old gas station at the intersection of Towson and Rogers avenues in the spring of 2017.
“People will walk up with their coffee,” Wade said. “It’s just a nice walk up from the coffee shop. Anything that helps foot traffic helps your business.”