I started collecting books on Arkansas when I was in college, and that hobby continues to this day.
The recent addition of a couple of new bookshelves allowed me to unbox some stored books, and I found a title I thought lost for many years. Missing its covers, the 250-page volume is a bit ragged, but its contents are sound.
“The Romance of Books” was written by Fred W. Allsopp, a Little Rock businessman and writer who assembled what was described at the time of his death in 1946 as the finest private library in the South. This library was only one of his many accomplishments.
Frederick William Allsopp was born June 25, 1867, in Wolverhampton, Staffordshire, England, the son of William and Harriet Dipple Allsopp. According to his obituary in The New York Times, the family immigrated to Canada when Fred was 18 months old. The family moved to Prescott, the county seat of Nevada County, when he was 12.
Allsopp took an interest in newspapers when a child, and resolved that he would have a career in the newspaper business. His first job was selling copies of the Arkansas Gazette on the streets of Prescott.
In the summer of 1883, the 16-year-old convinced the Gazette to name him as a local correspondent. Forty years later, Allsopp recalled in his autobiography “Little Adventures in Newspaperdom” his pride in being a local correspondent: “For a time, in my own estimation, I was the most important man in town, and for several months afterward I fondly carried the … certificate in my inside pocket, except when engaged in exhibiting it to my friends.”
In 1884, he volunteered for three months in the print shop of local weekly the Nevada County Picayune, learning to set type by hand, since this was years before the linotype machine became available.
Dennis Schick, who wrote the entry on Allsopp in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, noted that Allsopp was not content to be a mere correspondent: “With dreams of someday becoming an editor or publisher of a major newspaper, in 1884, at the age of 17, he applied for a job at the Gazette.”
He started out on the very bottom in the mailroom, and was transferred to the business office as soon as he learned to type and use shorthand.
Allsopp grew tired of the daily routine in the business office, and after only a few months abruptly took a job in the Gazette newsroom. His first reporting assignment was to cover a huge political gathering, and he found he was “so badly confused that it was impossible for me to make an intelligent report on the affair.” Allsopp quickly decided “that the god of news did not hover over me.”
After a few days, Allsopp returned to the business office, and there he would stay for the remainder of his life. However, he did occasionally take a reporting assignment and contribute editorials.
In 1902, Allsopp became a minority stockholder in the Gazette when the paper was sold to the Heiskell family of Memphis. He remained as business manager, developing “a reputation for his penny-pinching ways,” as Schick has written.
Historian Michael B. Dougan, author of “Community Diaries,” an excellent history of Arkansas newspapers, has also noted Allsopp’s stingy attitudes—such as his opposition to publishing seven days each week, his insistence on continuing the outdated practice of running advertising on the first page, and his opposition to printing the comics in color. Still, he managed to keep the Gazette afloat, even during the Great Depression.
Allsopp had many interests beyond newspaperdom. He was a shrewd businessman, especially concerning rental properties. In 1912, Allsopp developed a large commercial structure on Seventh Street, with seven stores on the first floor and six large apartments on the second. One issue of the Gazette in 1913 contained three advertisements for various rental properties.
He was also a director of the Union Security Co., secretary of Little Rock City Market and Arcade Co., and a founder of Allsopp and Chapple Bookstore on Main Street. The large store offered a varied stock of books, office supplies, and stationery items. An advertisement just before Christmas in 1913 touted its modern novels, nonfiction, inexpensive children’s books, and specialty items such as “The Complete Works of James Whitcomb Riley” in six volumes for $12. A set bound in “full Morocco” leather was double that price.
When I moved to Little Rock in 1967, older people were still bemoaning the closure of Allsopp and Chapple. It was in the news a couple of years ago when a restaurant opened in the old bookstore location and took the name Allsopp and Chapple.
It is only natural that Allsopp would establish a bookstore given his abiding interest in books and book collecting. Federal Judge Morris S. Arnold of Little Rock, a highly regarded historian and collector of early books on the lower Mississippi Valley including Arkansas, considers Allsopp a consummate collector, but also stresses that he was a renaissance man—reminding me that Allsopp had a astronomical observatory in his home in the Hillcrest neighborhood. He also collected art.
The scale of Allsopp’s book collection became known after his death when it was auctioned by Parke-Ber-net Galleries in New York. Due to the size of the collection, it was offered in three parts over several weeks. Perhaps the jewel of the collection was Allsopp’s four folios of Shakespeare’s plays.
Allsopp had a huge collection of first editions. Getting much attention from bidders was “Schoolboy Lyrics,” the first edition of the first book written by Rudyard Kipling, published in India in 1881 in a run of only 50 copies.
Among his holdings of Mark Twain first editions was “Life on the Mississippi.” He also had a large number of Twain letters and two copies of Twain’s “The Prince and the Pauper,” one of which was inscribed by the author: “Nothing so needs reforming as other people’s habits.”
My longtime colleague and friend Timothy Nutt and I are the hosts of “Third Thursday with Tom & Tim,” which is shared monthly via Zoom. Hosts and guests will discuss a variety of Arkansas-related subjects including history, art, culture, folklore, and music. If interested, send me an email at Arktopia.email@example.com.
Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living near Glen Rose in rural Hot Spring County. Contact him at Arktopia.firstname.lastname@example.org .