I would stop at the small bookshop several times a week to get coffee, or meet a friend, or sit at a quiet table to write, or wander through the shelves of books. A visit there was never complete without a conversation with the proprietor.

Books on First in Dixon, Illinois, just under two hours west of here, was the first small business my husband, Trevis, and I stopped in when we were checking out the town that would become our home for a decade before we moved across the Mississippi.

The white-haired, mustachioed man sitting behind the counter peered at us through his wire-rimmed glasses. 

“So, what brings you to town?” he asked, recognizing instantly that we weren’t regulars.

And that was the beginning of our friendship with Larry Dunphy, who died unexpectedly of natural causes at home on Thanksgiving. He was 81 years old and had been serving up coffee, books and conversation at the store just the day before. 

Larry had a knack for connecting with people. 

Smart, pleasant, kind, interesting and inquisitive. He made everyone feel like a friend. As I read through hundreds of posts on social media from his customers/friends, I couldn’t help but smile at one of the common themes. Larry had a knack for suggesting just the right book for everyone. 

My husband and I can point to dozens of books at our house that we bought because of suggestions from Larry. 

There’s “Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking” I just had to have after Larry pointed out a recipe on page 393 for pot roast braised in red wine.

“Nancy,” Larry said when I walked in one day as he got up from his seat and pulled a book from a shelf, “Do you remember when we were talking about your great aunt’s roast beef? There’s a recipe you’ve just got to see.”

There’s “Steel Giants,” a coffee table book about the golden age of steelmaking (1906 to the 1960s). Larry was familiar with the southeast side of Chicago near where I grew up and later covered the steel industry as a reporter at a daily newspaper. There’s “Scoop,” a work of fiction by Evelyn Waugh, which Larry thought I would like not only for the humor but because the satire’s main character is a writer.

Now, some might say that Larry’s skill at hand-selecting books for people was good salesmanship. And that it was. But it was more than that.

It was a gift borne from his humanity.

It’s amazing to me that he could make so many people feel so intimately understood. He knew what books to recommend because he took the time to get to know people on their own terms. He liked to find out what made them tick.  

He asked questions, and he listened. So, he knew that Trevis is interested in Civil War history, Ulysses S. Grant, and chuck-wagon cooking. He knew my friend Deb is drawn to books set in Africa, and my friend Bets likes stories that show the human condition with imperfections and all.  

In his 81 years, Larry packed a lot in. He’d grown up in rural Illinois and been a farmer. He’d lived in several neighborhoods in big cities. He’d been a salesman for a food company and held a variety of different jobs over the years. He lived in a modest home he built in a little clearing of woods. He had a garden and goats and chickens and turkeys.

He rode vintage motorcycles.

He read voraciously.

He turned his store into more than a place that sold books, gifts, and coffee or hosted art and music. He made it feel like home to everyone who walked through that door. 

Larry listened with humility.

Larry listened with an open mind.

Larry listened to learn.

I want to listen like Larry.