words: Marla Cantrell
images: Marla Cantrell and courtesy Debbie Foliart
Debbie Foliart sits at a table inside Chapters on Main in Van Buren, Arkansas, and looks out the window that faces the Old Frisco Depot. Soon, tourists will show up to ride the vintage A&M train that will take them through some of the prettiest land in the state. Soon, the trolley will swing by, the seats filled with visitors who want to see the sites in this historic downtown.
But right now, early in the day, the street is relatively quiet. Debbie takes advantage of this small break, sitting here with her first cup of Mama Carmen’s coffee from the bookstore’s coffee shop. Soft music plays in the background. The air smells like new coffee and old books. Sunshine streams through the plate-glass window.
A short time ago, the scene that’s unfolding lived only as part of a dream Debbie had. She’d always loved reading, and on vacations or business trips, she’d find herself in bookstores. And even though Debbie had been told that owning a bookshop didn’t necessarily make you flush with cash, she still wanted one.
When she told her husband Alan, he voiced his concerns. But then he thought about it. The two own TDG Merchant Solutions, and under that umbrella Debbie owns the Destiny Group and is the host of Leadercast Van Buren. Her instincts had always been spot-on, especially when it came to business. If she thought a book/coffee shop could succeed, he was willing to give it a try.
There was a problem, though. This spot was already taken. And it already housed a used bookstore that had been in business for years. Each time Debbie visited, she thought about what she’d do if it were hers. So, the next time she stopped by she told the owner that if he ever wanted to sell, to give her a call.
In January 2016, the owner did call, and by February they had a deal. Debbie, Alan, and their grandson, Christian Westbrook, became the new owners. At that time, the bookstore was filled to the gills, with books everywhere, standing in stacks, and sometimes spilling over to the flat surfaces. While Debbie loved the store, she envisioned a place where the inventory was streamlined, with wide aisles and lots of sunlight. She knew she wanted a coffee shop inside the store, and she wanted to add a selection of new books.
Which meant that she needed to get all the books that came along with the sale organized. Debbie set a target opening date of May 13, the first day of Old Timers Day weekend, the annual downtown festival that brings in thousands each year. And so they got to work.
Getting ready to open turned out to be a whale of a job. There were approximately 200,000 books to catalog. A friend owned another downtown building that was empty at the time, and let Debbie use it as a storage/sorting facility. In the bottom of a box, Debbie found a copy of A Child’s History of England by Charles Dickens. The handwritten inscription reads “Christmas 1851.” Her heart raced. As a lover of books, she realized what a rare find it was, and she put it away for safekeeping. The crew also found stacks of old magazines like Life and Look and the Saturday Evening Post that chronicled events such as the shooting of President Kennedy in Dallas, the Freedom March in Selma, Mississippi, and a previously unpublished manuscript by Mark Twain.
Back inside the store, major construction was underway to open up the space. Several seating areas were added. Upstairs, Debbie had two large windows installed, and made that area a haven for children. Now, on Saturdays at one in the afternoon, people from the community come to read to the kids who are developing a lifelong love of books.
There is also a massive basement, books crowding shelves, much as they had before Debbie and her family bought the place, and those who enjoy searching through the volumes love this area.
But one of the favorite parts of the store is the coffee shop. Caterer Cathi Dixon makes the pastries. And the coffee and tea is Mama Carmen’s, a brand distributed by Airship Coffee in Northwest Arkansas. “Our son knows Mark Bray, who owns Airship, and we loved what he was doing. The coffee is delicious, and he does so much to help coffee growers. We’re one of only four places in the state to carry it,” Debbie says. When they buy the coffee, ten percent goes back to Mama Carmen, who grows coffee in Guatemala to support orphaned kids in her country.
When Chapters on Main opened in May, a flood of well-wishers showed up, many gravitating to the coffee shop, where Christian and barista Logan Needham were barely keeping up, making White Chocolate Mocha Lattes, White Pomegranate Tea and Black Apple Espressos. Laughter erupted here and there. Parents shopped with their kids,
and customers were lining up at the register with books in hand.
“We had a woman named Michelle who brought her kids in the day we opened. That Sunday she brought her husband. On Monday she brought her sister. The next Monday she brought in her friend,” Debbie says.
Since then, the shop has become a gathering place. People come and read for hours. Others work on their laptops. A men’s church group has started meeting here weekly. For Debbie, seeing this shop become a center for the community is all she ever hoped for. She’s always giving back, volunteering, working with civic organizations, the Van Buren A&P, and the Van Buren Original, a group devoted to the revitalization of downtown. In June of this year, she received the Iverson Riggs Memorial Citizen of the Year Award.
Even now, when she talks about the honor, she feels a sweep of emotions. Debbie believes she’s immensely blessed to have the life she does, surrounded by great friends, a wonderful family, and now all these books. Her shop has at least 200,000 stories waiting to be read. But it also contains new stories that happen here every day, as old friends catch up with each other, or new friends meet while browsing for books.
As Debbie talks about what Chapters on Main means to her, two customers come in, a couple in their late teens. They’re asking about the Harry Potter and the Cursed Child release party that will happen just a few days later. Part of her mission was to create a place where the younger crowd wanted to be, and that’s exactly what’s happening.
Not far from where Debbie sits, a shelf holds new works by local authors. One of the books, Images of America Van Buren by Tom Wing, tells the history of this place. Debbie wants to learn everything she can about this town she loves so much. This building has its own stories to tell, having been here since 1908. That year, the forty-sixth star, representing Oklahoma, was added to the U.S. flag. The Model T came rolling off the assembly line, the first Gideon Bible was placed in a hotel room, and the most intense documented rain shower (2.47 inches in three minutes) caused panic in the country of Panama.
Each of these events was written down, the details preserved. Debbie smiles, her green eyes lit with joy. One day her chapter of this town’s history will become part of the bigger picture of Van Buren. Until then, she has a world of good to do. And so she gets back to the work at hand, here at this bookshop that started as a dream she knew would come true.