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'A renaissance man'

With plenty of interests, the late Larry Dunphy could recommend a book to anyone at his downtown Dixon bookstore

DIXON – Larry Dunphy’s presence will continue to grace his beloved book store for years to come.

Several photographs of Dunphy hang in two corners of the main level of Books on First, including one of him posing with a cardboard cutout of former President Richard Nixon making his iconic final farewell after resigning from office.

At one corner, a collage painting shows Dunphy in a pensive thought along with longtime customers sitting at tables in front of the store and his wife, Carolyn Chin, on the phone with a customer.

The images never will replace the man himself, who died at his home Thursday of natural causes at the age of 81. His services are Saturday at St. Mary Catholic Church in Walton, where he and Carolyn live.

Shop Small Saturday always is one of the store’s busiest days of the year, and this Saturday was no different.

Chin and longtime employee Brenda Spratt manned the front counter, coffee and cappuccino machines and phones, and asked customers if they were interested in the titles of December’s top books.

Larry and Carolyn would have been married 25 years come February.

“He really, really loved books,” she said. “He loved a lot of things. He loved life. He loved music, and not within a year we started to have live music, once in a while, then once a month, and now it’s almost every weekend.

“He’s a very modest man. He didn’t feel like he was much of anything, just a regular kind of guy.”

This “regular kind of guy” had a knack for a lot of things, his longtime customers said.

John Thompson and David Deets also are depicted in the painting in the back of the store. They are the only ones left from the picture who continue to make their visit a daily habit.

“From the beginning, it was really kind of a gathering place, because there were no places like this downtown,” said Thompson, 70, former president of the Dixon Area Chamber of Commerce. “He was a catalyst for in the initiation of the resurgence of the downtown.

“He led by example: he wanted other merchants to stay open, worked more days, more hours. Typically, at first, he would work 7 days a week, morning to night.”

Dunphy worked hard on perfecting the store’s inventory choice and selection, and Deets, 72, of Dixon, bought “hundreds” of books from him. The selection far outshone a national bookstore chain he recently visited at the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota, he said.

“They didn’t have half of the selection that he has,” Deets said. “He was always conscious of what you read. If something came up, he would find a book and he’d tell you about it, and if you wanted it, he’d get it.”

Like Thomson and Deets, Virgil Jensen also spent Saturday reminiscing about Dunphy. A friend and regular customer for nearly 15 years, he sat at another table in the back of the store with Spratt’s husband, Kevin.

Dunphy was a “renaissance man,” with a very good memory and having a lot of interests and thoughts. Even when he was stocking books up on shelves, there would be times that he would be looking at one, Jensen said.

“As soon as you came in the door, he knew a lot of people,” Jensen said. “A lot of out-of-towners would stop at the bookstore. There aren’t as many bookstores like this in the small towns. He would talk about where they are from, what they were doing, and sometimes ask questions.

“He had a litany of knowledge about books and things. Quite a guy.”

Ed Bushman and Geoff Vanderlin also stopped at Books for their daily cup of joe, together and with other friends.

“He knew everyone by name, and for us regulars, he would have our drink of choice ready before we even got to the counter,” Vanderlin said. “He’d sit quietly by his register while we bantered around until, at just the right moment, he’d inject a hilarious and on point comment.”

Bushman also will miss Dunphy’s dry wit.

“Out coffee klatsch would joke with Larry about how much money he was making off of us, and his response was ‘Yep, the eight of you have been sitting here for the past 2 hours, just made me $12. Wow, I should be rich by now’.”

“He was an institution ... his death is a huge blow to the downtown, and he will be missed by so many,” Vanderlin said.

Owning a book store wasn’t what Dunphy set out to do after growing up around Amboy. He had a wide variety of jobs at first and only when he met Carolyn did the idea of Books on First come about. They visited a Barnes and Noble in Chicago one day and the thought was appealing.

It took her some convincing, though.

“We’re going to have people spilling coffee on new books?” he asked her one day.

Still, she and Dunphy bought the building at 202 W. First St., which was built in 1859, and opened Books on First opened on Oct. 4, 1998. It’s one of only a few independently owned book stores in northern Illinois outside of the Chicago area – a fact that made Dunphy proud.

“He was very much adamant about small business and the independent bookstore concept,” Thompson said. “There aren’t so many of those left, and this is a good one.”

Dixon Councilman Mike Venier was one of the store’s first customers that day, and he welcomed Dunphy into a group of business owners who sought to improve the downtown’s viability. Venier, who co-owns Venier Jewelry, which has been in the family nearly 75 years, said that the clientele the book store brought also helped other downtown businesses.

“He brought a level of character, class and work ethic to the downtown business district,” Venier said. “It was a huge reason why Dixon became attractive. It’s a niche business that we probably won’t see again at least to the level of proprietorship that Larry brought to it.

“He really represented what Shop Small and Shop Local was all about.”

The two would meet nearly every day for 20 years, and developed a great friendship and business relationship, Venier said.

“He liked his watches, and I liked my coffee, and it worked quite well.”

Chin has placed notebooks on one of the coffee tables for customers to write their memories of Dunphy, about books he recommended to them that they really loved, and books that they enjoyed finding at the store.

Books on First will continue to operate at its usual hours, because “that’s what he would have wanted,” Chin said. It will close Saturday, though, for Dunphy’s services.

“He looked at this building and said that this was the perfect building,” she said. “We bought the building because we wanted it to be exactly what we wanted.

“He asked me, ‘Do you think this will be a place that people will want to go and be a destination?’ I said, “Absolutely. That’s why we’re here.’”

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