CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — After four years of impeccable salesmanship, a four-legged business associate is getting recognition.
Frank, the black cat who works Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at Next Page Books in NewBo, now has his own line of cat-themed books, cards, coffee mugs and more: Frank’s Corner.
“He’s become the face of the bookstore,” said Bart Carithers, who bought Next Page Books in December 2015. “He’s a fixture here.”
For the small bookstore that has lived through the continual rise of Amazon, the collapse of bookstore chains and the pandemic — through which Carithers resisted the move to a website for his store — Frank has become the epitome of the in-person retail experience.
That experience, based on personal connections, is where the part-time associate, a 5-year-old cat, shines.
In a world of inundating literature, Frank gets customers to slow down and be open to an experience of whimsy and intrigue. Most browsers, Carithers said, don’t know what they’re looking for when they enter.
“This was about an experience,” Carithers said, “as opposed to sitting in front of a screen or a phone.”
Now with a cat-themed selection added to that experience, the owner said the opening weekend for Frank’s Corner has proved Frank’s value. With almost $500 raised for the Iowa Humane Alliance — a combination of 10 percent of net sales and donations put into a jar by the cash register — Carithers said a typical Saturday this time of year would have only had a fraction of the sales from last weekend .
After a rough couple of years in daily news that never seems to get lighter, he wanted to do something lighthearted and fun — something that could mirror the reprieve from life that books provide. Next Page Books has been no exception to soaring book sales nationwide since the pandemic started. The habit that started in quarantines and lockdown has stuck, it seems.
Carithers, who does not have internet or cable service at home by design, said reading has provided an escape from extra screen time caused by working from home for many since 2020.
Frank has many job functions: marketing, advertising, social media mascot among them. But his biggest function as a sales cat is as a liaison, starting the conversations that humans can’t.
“Most people will immediately stop and pause and either talk to him or try to pet him. People are attracted to animals in general,” Carithers said. “It helps create an inviting atmosphere. For people who have never been in before, it’s a conversation starter.”
Through a friendly feline, customers have opened up to Carithers in ways they might not otherwise engage. Thanks to some fur and whiskers, the man with no prior business experience is privileged to hear the personal stories of customers that are not in print.
As a valued employee, Frank has full benefits.
His routine includes eating any treat put in front of him, climbing up the book shelf ladder for a nap and watching birds from the window. His favorite toys are crumpled pieces of paper and his blue stuffed mouse.
He rarely takes a personal day, always eager to get into his carrier for the commute to work three times a week.
His biggest professional vulnerability is stealing Carithers’ chair for naps, though he does not knock over the myriad items that would be all too tempting for most cats.
Carithers, 64, was a student affairs administrator at universities around the country for 30 years. After visits to Next Page became a regular part of his routine while taking time off at home in Cedar Rapids, the opportunity to purchase the bookstore in 2015 was a dream come true.
In the early 1960s and ’70s, he would occasionally help his mother, who managed the book department at Sanford’s in downtown Cedar Rapids.
“I fell in love with being around books. By the time I graduated from college, it became more of a dream because places like Borders and Waldenbooks took over,” he said. “There weren’t a lot of independent bookstores around, so I sheltered it and never gave it another thought.”
Frank, a feral kitten found at about 4 weeks old, was introduced to Carithers by a customer four years ago. At about 4 months old, Frank started coming into the store.
Now, some customers won’t stick around unless they know Frank is there.
Well into his career, Frank has helped Carithers navigate the steep learning curve of owning a business for the first time. The biggest lesson he has imparted is stress management.
“People ask ‘aren’t you stressed?’” Carithers said in the shop where he works seven days per week, with no desire to retire.
“Not really,” he replies, “because I don’t know what to be stressed about.”
“I’m having the time of my life here,” he added. “I’m enjoying this so much.”
Frank doesn’t talk much, but he seems to agree.