Furry sales clerks add novelty to Eureka store

Thursday, August 9, 2012
Tofu, one of two furry store clerks at East by West, makes change for customers by taking dollar bills from owner Yume Leavell and placing them on the counter.

Sometimes you have to go far away to appreciate what's close to home.

Last weekend, a couple came into Yume Tolle Leavell's store, East By West, and told her they were looking for the working bunnies featured in Leavell's ad. They had seen the ad in a Eureka Springs Visitor's Guide, which the couple picked up in a visitor's center in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

Where was the couple from? Springdale, Arkansas.

waits to give Becky Jackson, right, her receipt and package from store owner Yume Leavell, left. Jackson, from Versailles, Missouri, said it was the first time a rabbit has waited on her in a store.

"They went all the way to Wyoming and found out about something here," Leavell said.

What puts East by West on the map: the rabbits are not just store mascots, but actually wait on customers at the counter. Leavell has trained them to give customers back their credit cards, give out change in dollar bills, and pass pens, packages and receipts. They take the items from her hand and, turning their heads, putting the items in front of the customer. And they are fast.

"Other stores have rabbits, but none of them work except mine," she said.

Leavell, who opened East by West in 1994, started employing shop bunnies in 2000 after a boyfriend gave her three rabbits. The first to work at the store was Peppermint, who served customers from 2000 to 2007. Peppermint was joined by Pepperoni Pizza, a Siamese Satin who worked until last year.

Now on staff are Tofu, a white Lion Head/Lop mix doe, and three Dutch mix bucks: Snoopy, Junior and Jo-Jo. Two work at Caroline's Collectables, the store Leavell's mother, Loan Tolle, owns in Gaskin Switch Village on Highway 62E.

"We always have them working in pairs," Leavell said. "We have back-ups at home."

Rabbits, according to internet sites, are intelligent, social animals who can be trained to come when called, sit up, jump through a hoop and dunk a cat-toy ball in a basket. There's a rabbit in Northern Sweden who became an internet sensation after a video was posted of him herding his owner's sheep, a skill he picked up by observing the sheep dogs (see www.arkansasonline.com/news/2012/feb/03/video-sheep-herding-swedish-bunny-hit)

Rabbits also run agility courses, and like a cat, can be trained to use a litter box, which Leavell's rabbits do.

"They have the free range of the store," she said.

In addition to waiting on customers, the bunnies work the night shift as security guards. And, yes, they work for peanuts .. along with carrots, celery and lettuce.

"Tofu also likes blueberries," she said.

In all, Leavell has eight rabbits, most being rescue rabbits that people brought in from Little Rock and Dallas, or are adoptees from people who moved here and knows she takes in unwanted bunnies. But Leavell occasionally allows employees to date. One result was Furball, Pepperoni Pizza's grandson, who was featured on Animal Planet's Funniest Animals.

To see Furball working with Leavell's mother, see "Bunny Taking Credit Cards" on YouTube. There's also a 2008 myspace video (lauren/working bunnies) of Leavell, a baby in a carrier with a rabbit hat on, waiting on a customer with a bunny assistant.

Not all the bunnies are suited for counter sales, Leavell said. Peppermint's son, Frankenstein, who survived a cage accident when he was a week old that required 14 stitches, couldn't make change. But he did like greeting customers and playing pranks, Leavell said.

"He loved to untie shoelaces," she said. "He also liked women's sandals.

One time Frankenstein stood on his hind legs, reached up and unpanted a sales clerk by pulling down her shorts, which were loose, to her and the shoppers' surprise, Leavell said.

Although not always as dramatic, seeing the bunnies at work is number 56 on the Bridgeford House B & B's list of 101 things to do in Eureka Springs (watch squirrels is number 2). And bunny watching not just for children.

"The adults adore them," she said.

Leavell said she doesn't overtax the four-legged staff by having them work the counter for long stretches. Once they serve a customer, the bunnies can go and lounge under the display racks. If the store is busy, Leavell can't always track them down to put on a show. Sometimes the bunnies don't want to work, she said, and get tired, especially on weekends.

"By mid-morning, Tofu is yawning, and wants to take a nap," she said. "They go and hide so I can't find them."

Find East By West, which sells clothing and gifts, at 9 Center Street in downtown Eureka. Look for the "Working Bunnies" sign in the window.