Each year the Free Weekly honors someone who has helped make our community a better place. As our annual Person of the Year for 2006, we honor two people: Don Choffel and Charles O’Donnell. The two have made a solid contribution to Fayetteville, Northwest Arkansas and Dickson Street for almost 30 years as founders and proprietors of the Dickson Street Book Shop. The business is one of the longest standing businesses in downtown and has been a place in the community that has nurtured generations with its literary offerings. While both men take great pride in Fayetteville, the politics, development and changes that happen in our town often leave them cold. And on these topics they are not afraid to make their voices heard.
People of the Year
By Maylon T. Rice
Here’s a real success story of Northwest Arkansas proportions.
Two guys, one a native of Chicago wandered south and ended up selling textbooks out of a chicken house at Cane Hill; the other, a native of Boston, who as a young man in the 1960s passed through Fayetteville decided to stay and worked at a variety of jobs.
The two, Don Choffel and Charles O’Donnell, just happened to meet at a landmark Fayetteville restaurant—Restaurant on the Corner—on Dickson Street in 1978. Both were quietly nursing a beer at the end of a long, hot day, when amid their pleasantries they began talking about books—real books and real bookstores that they had visited all across the nation.
They each had an idea. Those ideas somehow merged into what is today the Dickson Street Book Shop.
But their idea wasn’t something that everyone appreciated and saw as a viable business venture. Fayetteville’s “powers that be,” who loan money and pass civic judgment on the business plans of those wanting to break into the Fayetteville commerce circle, said quite often and quite loudly the bookshop would never make it. But, boy, oh, boy has it ever.
This year marks the 29th year these two guys—known to their staff at the ‘Ying and Yang’ of bosses, almost different at night and day—have run a bookstore that almost defies description. The store does not have a cash register. Clerks use a pencil, calculator and common sense math to figure the purchases. The shop does, however, take credit cards and is open late, long after most downtown retail businesses have closed.
One long-time patron calls the men “a well versed team.” Another lauding praise said they were “a unique, nationally and internationally known bookshop headquartered right on Dickson Street, Fayetteville, Arkansas, United States of America, Planet Earth.”
The Dickson Street Book Shop, once resided almost directly across the street from its present location, taking up half of the building that now houses Doe’s Eat Place. The other half of the building was a resale shop when the two young business partners hung out their shingle announcing that they were buying and selling used and antique books.
After awhile the rent for the 2,000 square foot space became too high, so Choffel and O’Donnell moved the shop to the corner of Dickson Street and School Avenue into the old 8,000 square feet Vicker’s Laundry Building where the business is located today.
Many who frequent the bookstore have walked the concrete ramp from the front room of the bookstore to the back stacks without knowing that the ramp was built so laundry trucks could come in a side street garage door and go up the ramp to where the industrial sized washers were located in the back during the heyday of the laundry. O’Donnell relayed this bit of history about the building.
O’Donnell—according to his partner, Choffell—is the guy with the head for numbers, statistics and memory. Choffell, the Chicagoan, who marched to the south stopping off at Cane Hill with his textbook selling operation, may be the bookworm among us, O’Donnell offers.
They attribute part of the longevity of the business to the employees who have helped them run the bookshop over the years. It is rare to see both men in the bookshop at the same time.
“We have been successful over the years, because we have had some really good, solid, employees,” Choffell said. “I mean some students, and others, who were really interested in this business, the books, the writers, the literature and if you will, the success of a good bookstore.”
O’Donnell echoes Choffell’s appreciation of their long list of employees. Many have stayed through not only their formative years, while doing undergraduate and graduate studies at the nearby University of Arkansas, but after graduation.
And then there are the books. The duo’s love of books, has caused them to literally almost outgrow their building. Both men are hesitant to answer the query of “exactly how many books are in the Dickson Street Book Shop?”
After some hemming and hawing, both admit the number could be around 90,000 or maybe even 100,000.
“Instead of talking about numbers, let’s talk about quality,” O’Donnell said. “We have some really fine books here. People who come in here for the first time are amazed at the selection.”
Folks close to the duo know that O’Donnell and Choffel will never turndown a chance to look at, buy and set back for resale some of the fine book collections that people bring to their shop, no matter what the subject matter.
When asked about the most valuable book that has been sold in the store, again O’Donnell’s sharp wit, strikes a cautionary pose.
“Let’s not focus on that. I am sure over the years we have sold some very valuable books, but we have sold more very good books than very valuable books. We are not an antique book store, we are a very good, used book store,” O’Donnell said with his signature sly grin, slight dipping of his head and a brief chuckle.
The bookstore does not carry new books and does not discriminate in the type of books it carries. One can find books far to the liberal left and far to the conservative right. You can find fiction, nonfiction, travel books, art books, poetry, history, biographies and everything in between.
If you stand around the shop on most any day, you hear customers come in asking for a wide litany of every type of book that one could imagine.
Both men laughed when reciting the advice that they have been given again and again: that they had better get a liquor permit and set up a bar inside or they won’t survive on Dickson Street.
That was advice they heard often and loudly when they first set up shop. But, they have turned their collective dreams of a bookstore into a successful operations and one of the jewels of Northwest Arkansas.
When asked, both men admit that the influx of the big store chains is pushing the locally owned new booksellers out of business. When asked what other U.S. bookstores might rank with their digs, both are hesitant, but several websites of well-known used bookstores quickly names Fayetteville’s Dickson Street Book Shop in the top five or certainly in the top 10. The Fayetteville bookshop ranks among those found in major cities such as Denver, Portland, Atlanta and other larger metropolises.
The struggle O’Donnell and Choffell say they have today is not with other used bookstores, but the struggle for the identity of Dickson Street and the changes that the surrounding neighborhood is going through with high-rise condos, high dollar developments, proposed parking garages and property values.
“We were one of the only ones who voted against the Dickson Street Enhancement Project,” O’Donnell said and smiled. “That’s still a vote we do not regret making. For all the money spent it was a shame.”
While the neighborhood changes, the bookstore has made some significant upgrades to the outside of the strangely configured building. Cloth awnings and newly painted windows by a local artist Joe Alexander brings a bit of newness and life to the bookstore, which is largely untouched on the inside.
The tiny warren like trails leading from one section to another are legendary. Some coeds have found their soul mate in the stacks and romanced them in a quiet section on a quiet afternoon. Some have sat to read and discovered the magic of Shakespeare or the unvarnished truth from Freud or Voltaire.
The two owners, with different personalities and a general love of good books also have another connection that is strange for business partners: They share the same birthday – Dec. 20, 1933. O’Donnell, with his dry wit, is quick to say that Choffel is the elder.
“He was born about three minutes ahead of me, I’ve been trying to stay up with him since.”
Their love of books, their employees and of Fayetteville can be seen in their unique store. “This community has been good to us,” Choffel said.