"I need to speak to the owner."

The phrase is often said to Beth Templeton, owner of Belle Starr Antiques & Vintage Market. Though Templeton has owned her shop on the corner of North Fourth and B streets for eight years, she said she still hears it.

"I do sometimes still get the shock and surprise that a younger woman is the owner of an antique store," she said.

Templeton is one of several women who own businesses in downtown Fort Smith, ranging from bookstores to tattoo parlors to consignment stores. Though Fort Smith Coffee Co. co-owner Kaity Gould said the downtown area has "a good mix" of men and women who own businesses, some female owners say they still experience difficulty in day-to-day interactions with customers and male business owners in the downtown area.

"You just feel like you have to prove yourself, and sometimes, you feel like you’re being talked down to," said Sara Putman, co-owner of the bookstore Bookish on the corner of North 10th and B streets.

Putman and Jennifer Battles, both former English teachers at Alma high school, opened Bookish in August with the hope of creating a space for literary culture in Fort Smith. Though they are only a few months old and have experienced slow business at times, their store has generally received support in the community, Battles said.

Putman said she didn't even think about the possibility of being treated differently when she and Battles first opened their store. But the way male business owners speak to her and Battles brought it to her attention, she said.

Battles gave the example of a man who told her and Putman they should have a white board in the bookstore.

"I know they're helpful suggestions... but I don’t think you would go into a man’s business and offer the same suggestion right off the bat," Battles said.

Templeton, who named her store after Belle Starr specifically because she saw the famed outlaw as a strong, independent businesswoman, said she has frequently confronted truck drivers who choose to park on her lot. She said many of these men are shocked that she owns the building and property.

But when she's not confronting truck drivers, Templeton said she doesn't mind telling people she's the owner.

"I actually enjoy that side of it, because it’s like, 'Surprise, I’m competent and capable,'" she said.

These experiences differ from those of Gould, who in 2017 opened and co-owns Coffee Co. at the intersection of Rogers and Towson avenues with her husband. She said she has gotten "nothing but support and respect" since she opened up her business, even before her husband began working full-time at the coffee shop.

"That’s what I expect going into something like this, so I’m thankful that is what has happened," Gould said.

When it comes to support for Bookish, Putman and Battles said women — both customers and downtown business owners — have made them feel the most at home. They specifically said Crissie Clegg, who owns True Grit Tattoo Parlor, is a faithful customer.

"We moved in, opened the doors, and there she is," Putman said of Clegg.

Going forward, Templeton, Putman, Battles and Gould all expressed a desire to continue to improve their businesses and shape downtown Fort Smith. Templeton said she's happy that downtown Fort Smith has a strong population of female business owners.

"It’s just great to see this much female drive," Templeton said. "We ladies know how to work hard and do what we have to do."