Join Login Search
For Electric Cooperative Members
For Electric Cooperative Members

Texas Book Man

Felton Cochran’s cluttered bookshelves—the finest collection of Southwest literature for sale—endure despite the internet

Felton Cochran gave up his rat-race career as a wholesale liquor salesman when, as he recalls, he came to the realization that the rats were winning. Compounding the problem was his concern that he was becoming one of his own best customers.

In the wake of that epiphany, he decided it was time to take leave of such workplaces as Fort Worth, Dallas and Lubbock and return home.

All he took with him on his return to San Angelo was what money he’d saved, his treasured collection of rare books on Texas history and a genuine concern for how to earn a living.

It was 1995, and Cochran’s résumé was thin. He’d spent three years as a journalism major at the University of North Texas in the early 1960s before dropping out to sell whiskey. Then there was his self-taught knowledge of Texana and Southwestern literature.

He made the crapshoot decision to see if the latter might somehow pay the bills.

Thus, the little Cactus Book Shop, in the heart of San Angelo, was born of financial necessity and a lifetime fondness for the gentle pace of the community and its people. Here, Cochran likes to say, a traffic jam is a half-dozen pickups waiting for the light to turn green.

Today his store is the go-to destination of researchers, writers, collectors, genealogists and those simply fascinated by Texas history. Need a hard-to-find, long-out-of-print biography of one of the state’s early pioneers, ranchers, oilmen, politicians or infamous scallywags? Want the history of any of the 254 counties in Texas? Autographed first editions of many of the state’s legendary novelists? Go see Felton Cochran.

You’ll pardon him if it sounds like grade A Texas boasting, but he insists he now oversees the finest collection of Southwestern literature to be found under one roof. Some academics might argue that collections at major universities like the University of Texas, Texas Tech University and the famed Wittliff Collections of 30,000 titles at Texas State University merit strong consideration. But those books aren’t for sale.

Steve Davis, curator of the Wittliff’s Southwestern Writers Collection, is quick to give Cochran his due, calling the Cactus “a legend among book collectors and a must-stop for any book lover or anyone interested in Texana.”

Felton’s store is clutter comfortable, with a collection that seems as vast as his beloved state.

Dave Shafer

Cochran’s East Concho Avenue shop might best be described as clutter comfortable.

Old West memorabilia, like strands of early barbed wire, are on display. Nose around long enough and you see the citation from True West Magazine, which in 2020 named the Cactus as the nation’s best Western history bookstore, or even the Texas Readers’ Club membership certificate that a young Cochran received back in his elementary school days. But it’s the musty aroma of old books wafting along the narrow aisles and the wiry, balding man behind the front counter that are the primary lures.

The shop owner always has time to talk about books and bygone days.

In an era when many bookstores—independents to nationwide franchises—have lost the battle with the internet and disappeared, the Cactus Book Shop serves a niche that allows it to endure and prosper. Even at 83, Cochran is in touch with today’s technology. He maintains a website, and his electronic catalog goes out monthly to customers in 28 states. The phone rings steadily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays with requests from seekers and sellers.

It is, however, the walk-in customers Cochran most enjoys—particularly when they represent a new generation of history lovers.

“Not long ago,” he says, “a lady and her 14-year-old home-schooled daughter came in and shopped for quite some time. When they came to the checkout counter, the girl had an armload of books, which I assumed were for her mother. Not so. The girl, having recently developed an interest in Texas history, had picked the titles. That did my heart good.”

An avid reader since those childhood days when his mother would regularly drive him to visit the public library, Cochran is a man who knows the secrets hidden in the pages of the volumes he sells. Pressed to recommend his favorite book on Texas history, he suggests Lone Star: A History of Texas and the Texans, fellow Texan T.R. Fehrenbach’s lyrical 800-page history lesson. “Without Texas,” the late San Antonian author wrote, “there would be no American West.” Cochran, who has done his homework, agrees.

Proof that Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan and movie legend Robert Duvall found what they were looking for at the Cactus.

Dave Shafer

Western author Patrick Dearen has been a regular since Cochran’s store opened. “Felton and his store have been an invaluable asset to me over the years,” says the winner of a Spur Award, which recognizes distinguished writing about the American West. “I’ve also done a great deal of research at the Midland Nita Stewart Haley Memorial Library, using books their archivist has purchased from Cochran.”

All Texas history seems to run through this storefront.

“J. Frank Dobie once said that there have been more books written about Texas than any other state in the U.S.,” Cochran says. “It is a subject that is so diverse that it offers something for everyone.”

For instance, among his books that customers can’t seem to get enough of are those focusing on the Big Bend. “We are a stopping place for those en route to the region,” he says.

If a particular book you’re seeking is not among the estimated 12,000 volumes crammed along the shop’s floor-to-ceiling shelves, Cochran will try to find it. “Today,” he says, “the hunt for that rare title is the biggest thrill.” For that reason, he remains on high alert for estate sales and is on a first-name basis with numerous rare book collectors who might one day decide the time has come to sell their books.

Sometimes, he says, easy-to-sell treasures come from the most unusual places. He recalls a phone call a few years ago from the sister of Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Larry McMurtry, informing him that she had several valuable books she was interested in selling. Aware that her brother operated a major bookselling business in his hometown, Archer City, Cochran asked why she hadn’t offered her books to him. In most colorful language, she explained that she was seriously unhappy with her famous sibling and not inclined to speak to him.

Now, after 29 years of bookselling, Cochran says it’s not unusual to buy a book from someone whose grandfather he originally sold it to.

A longtime friendship with another celebrated author has kept Cochran’s cash register humming. The late Elmer Kelton, recognized by many as the premier Western fiction writer of all time, also called San Angelo home, and Cochran made sure he stocked the most complete collection of the seven-time Spur Award winner’s works. In-store book signing became a routine event each time a new Kelton Western was published.

“I remember that for the first one we did, I optimistically ordered 100 copies from his publisher,” Cochran says. “We sold out in less than an hour and took orders for 200 more.

A shelf of Elmer Kelton’s works.

Dave Shafer

A mounted sampling of barbed wire is among the memorabilia displayed in the Cactus.

Dave Shafer

“Not only was Elmer a wonderful writer, but he was the kindest, most down-to-earth man I’ve ever known. On several occasions, I would be at his house, having coffee, when a complete stranger would knock on the door, carrying an armload of books he hoped to have autographed. Elmer would invite him in, pour him a cup of coffee and start signing. For all the awards and recognition he received, I don’t think he ever fully realized the remarkable impact his writing had on people.”

Among Cochran’s prized possessions is a first printing of Kelton’s 2004 novel, Texas Vendetta, which is dedicated to “Felton Cochran, Bookseller Extraordinaire.” Of course, it’s not for sale.

It wasn’t until Kelton’s passing in 2009 that his old friend finally put his bygone journalism studies to use. When TCU Press published a book of reflections on the fabled author, it included My Friend, Elmer Kelton, a moving essay written by Cochran.

Among the steady stream of ardent collectors of Kelton first editions to visit the Cactus Book Shop have been Baseball Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan and movie legend Robert Duvall.

They, like so many others before and since, left as satisfied customers.