Attending the musical wake of Bruce D. Walker on Sunday brought up a lot of sadness in the midst of so many cheerful tunes by local songsters. Standing in several of the eight corners of George’s Majestic Lounge (front bar/stage and garden bar/stage) I saw dancing and clapping and heard hoots and whoops. Embracing the folks I knew there, though, we exchanged quick shouts (we had to yell due to the loud bands) of “isn’t it awful” with teary eyes.
Bruce founded Flying Possum Leather in 1976 on Fayetteville on the “High Street” stretch of Dickson Street. He made and sold sandals and belts and other leather goods, most famously perhaps a guitar strap he got patented as it does not stress the instrument’s neck. Bruce would have been 58 years old in June, but around 6:30 a.m. last Monday, March 7, his shop caught fire. He was already at work, and died of smoke inhalation. His dog Bugsy, who went everywhere with him, survived the blaze (relatives have taken him in). In a preliminary investigation, Fayetteville police called the fire’s cause accidental.
I’ve bought one pair of Birkenstock shoes (regular, closed heel and toe, for work) from Flying Possum, and had a couple of pair of Birks resoled or recorked by him, and My Beloved had done similar business with him, as well as buying a Walker Strap. Yet Bruce got around; he was a young hippy turned prominent local, if eccentric, merchant. We’d howdy at the downtown Square three blocks south or maybe a sentence or two at the bench in front of his shop.
Bugsy, a quiet, sweet, medium-sized mongrel, wandered through George’s, accepting pats and head scratches. The children there swarmed him at times.
Dog in a bar, call the authorities! But many authorities were in the roadhouse at some point during the seven-hour concert (1–9 p.m. roughly, including a funeral in the evening) , having shut down the parking meters for the day so more people would be encouraged to come to George’s and honor Bruce.
Sunday on Dickson was so Fayetteville. Twenty bands, special T-shirts printed up, donation of food by nearby restaurants. All that organization in just four days shows how tight the community is, and how much all loved Bruce.
Bruce — slightly built, scruffy bearded fellow with kind eyes and strong opinions — embodied Fayetteville.
Bugsy wasn’t the only animal in the lounge, but he was acknowledged. The elephant in the room as usual stayed invisible.
Bruce’s death and that of his business might be harbingers of a Fayetteville transformation so many of us love.
The college town will be reincarnated simultaneously with the current erosion, don’t get me wrong, and the new Fayetteville might be as good or better, but that will take some doing, by Fayetteville characters with smarts, energy and cunning, and it ought to start right away. Loss of quirky shops and local cafes, and the increase of corporate calorie troughs might turn Fayetteville into Bentonville, and that’s no way to get the Walton Arts Center back.
In recent weeks, Scarpino’s (handsomely renovated commercial building housing a gelato emporium, Italian restaurant and rental banquet hall)) announced it would be run by a professional management company, adding a floral shop (?). Kosmos, a Greek gyros (fast-food) place next door, has grabbed a location on College Avenue, not saying if it would drop the current site. A Chipotle Mexican Grill has a coming-soon sign at the old train station — it’s a chain. Waffle House is going in kitty-corner from Flying Possum/Kosmos. It’s a chain. But that one will be wonderful — a hot breakfast after a night of clubbing or a show is a wonderful thing.
This incarnation of the Dickson High Street began in 1992, with the opening of the Walton Arts Center.
Before that, the University of Arkansas entertainment strip, West Dickson Street, was pretty rough, beer joints and pool halls. Flying Possum Leather was there throughout, of course, as was the beloved George’s (founded in 1927). With the WAC, it didn’t go upscale like Palo Alto’s University Drive so much as trendy, a small-scale Austin or Bloomington.
It’s just not that Bentonville is promised a bigger WAC auditorium, with promoters vowing to use the original one for “appropriate” shows, but it’s a symptom.
Flying Possum likely won’t come back. It’s true that restaurants come and go. And the nation’s Good Depression (because ours is a Good Generation not the Greatest Generation), has much to do with retailers closing more than opening.
Paid parking was cited by Kosmos as one of its reasons for moving (or expanding?). The management of Doe’s Eat Place, a small regional steak chain, has signs in its windows sniping about the parking meters. There’s good reasons for metered parking. Local governments are suffering losses of revenue through drops in sales and property taxes, due to the Good Depression.
But officials and business councils ignore that economics is more than math. The economics of aggravation plays a part. People will drive five more minutes to avoid paying a quarter, much less the dollar an hour in downtown Fayetteville. Valet parking is barely higher than metered on Dickson, including the tip (in Bordino’s alley). What’s economics say about that, besides that it’s cheaper than Kansas City. But, Bugsy, “we’re not in Kansas.”
I don’t want to close this bittersweet memory of an overcast March afternoon full of guitars and brews with a rant about the new paid parking. The meters are a symptom, even with their hip irony of being solar-powered, of the coming broad transformation of a quirky downtown.
Matter of fact, I’m optimistic. Dickson always will have bars and grills, due to campus being blocks away. Frankly, I don’t see the Walton Arts Center moving for many years. Our original WAC took six years to go up, and years of informal planning before that.
Bentonville might never build that 2,200-seat monument. People there told a TV station “the new center will be a good thing for people who live in rural Benton County too because it will spare them a drive to Fayetteville.”
The big auditorium is intended for multinight performances of shows like Wicked, at $60-$90 a seat. Nothing predicts Broadway sell-out like the phrase “rural Benton County.”