DIXON – He’s held a number of odd jobs over the years, but owning a bookstore was one of the last things Larry Dunphy envisioned for himself.
But in 1998, his wife, Carolyn Chin, sold him on the concept. After spending a year looking around, the couple settled on the property at the southwest corner of West First Street and Hennepin Avenue.
Books On First has evolved into a local favorite for coffee and chatter, and Dunphy said there’s a loyal following.
“Book stores, barber shops – they’re traditional places of discussion,” he said. “It was my wife’s idea. She said she wanted to make it a destination. … She was talking about it, and I thought ‘Sounds good to me.’”
Last week, Dunphy, 77, sat down with SVM to talk small business, the downtown, and the challenges of running one of the few independent Illinois book shops west of the Chicago suburbs.
How did Books On First get its start?
It was all my wife’s idea. She always wanted to open a book store like Harvard’s in Cambridge (Massachusetts).
How did she bring that idea up to you, then?
I don’t know. I’d been at this one job for 7 years. At the time, it was the longest job I’d ever had, so 7 years felt like forever. She was talking about it and I thought, sounds good to me. I grew up in Amboy. I was familiar with the area. We looked for a building for about a year. We were standing across the street and looked at this place. I said, we either overpay for this place or forget about it. This was a complete gut job. It was insurance office for years. This building was built in 1859.
Was it always going to be in Dixon when you were looking around?
No. There was a book store for sale in Princeton, and we kind of hinted like we wanted it. They were thinking about selling and they decided not to sell. It had to be far enough from competition. Not that there aren’t independent book stores in Chicago, but it’s tough to do in Chicago. You’ve got Barnes & Noble and at the time, Borders.
I’ve heard the claim that you’re the largest independently owned book store in the region …
Big deal. There aren’t that many independent book stores (laughs).
I’ve come to realize pretty quickly that Books on First is a major hangout spot for a lot of people in this community. Why do you think that is?
It’s just a good place for discussion over a coffee or latte. We’re centrally located. Several people who come here work downtown and early in the morning, there’s no trouble parking. We wanted to make it a destination.
Do you think you’ve accomplished that?
I think so, yeah.
What are the benefits to the community of having a local independent book store like this?
First of all, we’re open 75 hours a week. We’re the only business downtown that’s open on Sundays. We do a lot of coffee business. This is a place where you forgot to buy a present for your friend’s 6-year-old’s birthday party. We get a lot of that last-minute shopping. We have live music on Saturdays – that goes back to being a destination.
I’ve never had the intention of ever retiring.
Why is that?
What would I do in retirement? I’d be bored. I’ve just always worked.
Always liked it, too?
When I didn’t like a job, I’d quit.
Do you feel like a lot of people know you well?
Yeah, but of course who doesn’t? A lot of people say “I’ll meet you at Larry’s.”
What do people not realize about this place?
One of the interesting things is we’ve had the same hours for the last 17 years. Including Sundays and open until 9 on Fridays. Yet, I have people who come in here once or twice a week and they’ll say, “When did you start staying open on Sundays? When did you start staying open late on Fridays?” It’s been on the door for 17 years. It hasn’t changed (laughs). And we’re all good with customers and remembering peoples’ names – very important when running a small business – we’re all good at it. The customers know the employees’ names. We just have a lot of regular customers.
Personability. It seems like that can be a make or break for a business like yours.
If you own the place, you have to work 60 hours a week. I work 6 days a week. Whenever you own your own business, you work a lot of hours. But hell, everyone works a lot of hours, whether you own a business or not.