San Angelo's Cactus Book Shop: Top seller of Texana and Western Americana books

Michael Barnes
Austin American-Statesman
Felton Cochran runs Cactus Book Shop in San Angelo with quiet dignity and yet passionate interest.

SAN ANGELO — Loyal readers of this column know that I dearly love a good book shop.

And for that matter, a good book seller.

My husband, Kip Keller, now a writer and book editor, worked in three of them.

My sister, Valerie Barnes Koehler, owns a popular shop, Blue Willow Books, in Houston.

A longtime friend, Sheri Tornatore, owns South Congress Books, a used book store that winks at me every time I pass its inviting windows on foot. I often give in.

Austin is home to BookPeople, one of the largest and best indie bookstores in the country.

(It's also the No. 1 seller of "Indelible Austin," a series of books that collect my best local history columns in three volumes.)

Whenever I travel, if there's a bookshop nearby, I'll find it.

On an earlier "Think, Texas" road trip, I discovered three bookshops in tiny Glen Rose.

I heard such good things about Pratt's Books, located about 100 miles up the road from Glen Rose in Graham, I vowed to seek it out the next time I'm in that area.

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In San Angelo, the third stop on my most recent Texas history trip, I visited Cactus Book Shop for the first time. It's the finest purveyor of Texana and Western Americana that I have ever encountered.

I said as much to the owner, Felton Cochran, after just a few minutes browsing his wares.

Twice, I said loudly to my travel buddy: "We must leave soon! I am tempted to buy out the shop!"

Of course, I could not afford to do that. Many of Cochran's gems are rare books and, as such, out of my price range. 

Still, I made three prized purchases and felt no shame in doing so.

No wonder that, in January 2020, True West magazine named Cactus Book Shop the Best Western History Book Store. In January 2021, the San Angelo gem at 4 E. Concho Ave. received True West's Readers Choice Award for best Western History Book Store.

It's on a roll.

Storefront of Cactus Book Shop at 4 East Concho Ave. in San Angelo.

The man and his books

Cochran, who runs Cactus Book Shop with a quiet dignity and fervent interest as well as a generous pinch of humor, grew up in San Angelo.

As a youth, Cochran inhaled adventure stories. 

"John Blain's Rick and Scotty science adventures. Hardy Boys. Roy Rogers and Gene Autry. Edgar Rice Burroughs," he says. "I was always badgering my stepmom to drive me to the library for more books!"

A seventh-grade course sparked his interest in Texas history.

Cochran graduated from high school in 1960, and left to attend North Texas State University in dry Denton, which unintentionally put him on the course of his first career.

"I bootlegged quarts of beer and half-pints of cheap whiskey to my fraternity brothers and others around the fraternity house neighborhood to make spending money," Cochran says, "I had to go to Dallas to get product, and became acquainted with the liquor store owner, who eventually hired me as a clerk."

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Cochran went on to work as a salesman for a wholesale liquor outfit, Lone Star Co., in Dallas and Galveston, then to Quality Beverage in Fort Worth and Lubbock, and after that to Glazer's back in Fort Worth.

"After 20-some years in that industry, I finally decided to quit the rat race because the rats kept winning," Cochran jokes. "I went off in search fame and fortune, and came back broke and infamous. ... I was drawn back home to San Angelo. This ol' town just has a natural pull for all of us who grew up here."

During his whiskey-selling years, Cochran built up his personal trove of Texana.

"I guess the first book that caught my interest in Texas history was Lon Tinkle's "The Alamo: Thirteen Days to Glory" about the Texas Revolution," he says. "I don't rightly remember when I first read it. My collection grew and diversified from there."

When Cochran moved back to San Angelo in 1995, he began to sell off some of his treasures.

"As a bookseller, I've learned to detach myself," he says. "I sell books, now, that 30 years ago, while I was a collector, you would have had to hold a gun to my head to force me to part with them. Now, I just own them for a little while. I've been buying and selling books ever since."

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Still, he loves the hunt for a rare volume.

"I buy books nearly every day — people bring them in, they call me and I go out — I've driven all over Texas and to all the neighboring states to buy collections," Cochran says. "Sometimes I'll find a few in local estate sales, but rarely any real quantities. People who call generally know what kind of books I buy, usually through word of mouth. My inventory is ever-changing."

He prices books according to a system familiar to those who deal in used and rare books.

Cochran: "It's just having a feel for the rarity of the book, its condition and many other factors."

Author Elmer Kelton wades into the sheep pens for a closer look on assignment for the San Angelo Standard-Times in 1959.

At first, Cochran sold books from his home, mostly mail order, then he moved downtown, near tourist attractions such as Fort Concho, San Angelo Museum of Fine Arts and the city's lovely riverwalk. 

"I've been downtown since 1997," he says. "Most of my business — both walk-in and mail order — is from out of town, probably 80% or more."

Cochran sends out a monthly catalogue to customers in 28 states, but he doesn't sell over the Internet. At the downtown shop, the foot traffic remains steady.

"Weekends seem to be better because I believe we're seeing more weekend tourists come over from the big cities," Cochran says. "San Angelo has a certain unexplainable lure to big city folks. It's like an oasis on the outer edge of the Chihuahuan Desert, where the three Concho rivers meet."

Elmer Kelton's books are showcased at Cactus Book Shop. Kelton, late farm and ranch reporter for the San Angelo Standard-Times and a friend of the shop's owner, wrote scores of books, mostly Westerns.

Specializing in Elmer Kelton books 

No matter what other titles are available at Cactus Book Shop, there always will be a full complement of volumes by Cochran's late friend Elmer Kelton, a prolific writer of Western Americana. For years, Kelton served as the farm and ranch reporter for the San Angelo Standard-Times.

"I didn't really get acquainted with Kelton's writing or the man until the 1980s," Cochran says. "I first met him at a writer's conference monitored by Judy Alter in Fort Worth. When I moved back to San Angelo in 1986, and started selling books, then Elmer and I started working together and became friends. ... I wrote a brief essay about my friendship with Elmer that Judy edited and published in 'Elmer Kelton: Essays and Memories' (2009, TCU Press).

Currently, I'm rereading Kelton's "The Time It Never Rained." It's about a crusty old rancher who refuses government assistance during the big Texas drought of the 1950s. Since I'm also reading Stephen Harrigan's "Remember Ben Clayton," make that two novels about crusty old ranchers.

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Based on the incomplete evidence of a few hundred pages, I'd say Harrigan's Lamar Clayton is more nuanced than Kelton's Charlie Flagg.

But who am I to argue with the judgement of John Graves, a god among Texas writers:

"Not too many full-scale literary portraits of country Texans from the differing parts of the state have managed to avoid falling into traps like jingoism, sentimentality, ax-grinding, or excessive typicalness," Graves wrote about "The Time It Never Rained." "Some have managed, though, and among the best of these is Elmer Kelton's characterization of a decent, cantankerous, intelligent rancher named Charlie Flagg.

"As usual, Kelton is honest and clear-eyed and deeply family with his subject matter, and he's less concerned with proving points or making Charlie stand for something than he is with showing a strong individual in harsh and changeful times. In consequence, this individual not only comes alive for readers, but does powerfully represent a good side of rural West Texas that many of us care about."

Cochran helped organize a campaign to put up a statue of Kelton in the downtown library. The author deserves the respect. 

The romance of the printed page has not faded for this shop owner. Neither has Texas history or Texas mythology, which are sometimes the same thing.

"Texas history is so diverse and interesting to me," Cochran says. "Somehow I've acquired a following of like-minded people, many of whom don't mind forking over $300, $1,000 or $2,000 or more for a single tome.

"As for the Texas myth, J. Frank Dobie once said, many years ago, that here have been more books written about Texas than all the other states combined. And I think that's remained true even today, although I have no way of supporting that."

Michael Barnes writes about the people, places, culture and history of Austin and Texas. He can be reached at mbarnes@statesman.com.