guitar straps, sandals, and possums that fly

guitar straps, sandals, and possums that fly

The interior of Flying Possum was dark and rustic, smelled like leather and lacquer, and was like stepping into a tannery in the wild old days of the Ozarks, complete with cowboy hats and a scruffy old dog named Bugsy. When Birkenstocks were all the rage among non-hippies, damn near everyone in northwest Arkansas went to Bruce Walker to get a pair. It could be an all-day adventure.

See, Bruce wanted to immortalize your feet. The process of getting your Birkenstocks was extremely precise for Bruce, and he was very enthusiastic about it. He’d keep you for hours, talking about feet, if you let him. He’d tell you how many bones you had in your foot, how bad high heels were and why, and the importance of arch support. He’d critique your gait, he’d muse about your posture. If you showed more than a passing interest in all this, he’d recommend you consider a pair of the sandals that he designed and made himself instead of Birkenstocks.

Bruce crafted his custom sandals from slabs of dark leather, cut to your exact specifications. They would, over time, become the greatest pair of shoes you ever owned. They were nearly as good as going barefoot, he’d say. Bugsy would inevitably shuffle past you and you’d swear you’d hear the old dog sigh.

If you continued to indulge Bruce’s friendly, one-sided chatter, you’d hear about his guitar straps. They hung around the shop like bridles, and you’d be forgiven for assuming that’s what they were. He had one attached to his guitar, and he was happy to play a little bit for you. These straps were revolutionary, he’d say. There was no strain on the neck, no need for a strap screw, no damage to your guitar, and he’d measure you for a precise fit — just like his sandals.

See, Bruce wanted to immortalize his guitar straps, too. And he was well on his way: Neil Young has one — the very first one. Lucinda Williams has one, of course, since she’s practically a hometown hero. Willie Nelson and Conor Oberst each have one, too. Bruce would go to shows, get backstage, and tell any star he could corner about his strap. One had to wonder if some bought one just to get Bruce to stop going on and on. But the straps really were that good. It’d be a small price to pay to listen to Bruce so you could get one made for you and your guitar.

I last saw Bruce in December of 2010. I’d just gotten a parking ticket, midday, the week after Christmas. Bruce looked as mad as I’d ever seen him and declared he was going to read aloud the article he’d just written about how the city of Fayetteville was killing Dickson Street business with their fascistic parking enforcement. Two ladies, who had been plotting to exit, stopped (out of Southern politeness) to listen. I smiled. It was good to hear him talk again after so many years, to smell the familiar smells of his leather shop, and to pat old Bugsy. When the ladies left, Bruce talked for another half hour about all the musicians he thought should use his guitar strap, which was every musician who played a guitar. I couldn’t disagree.

And then Flying Possum caught fire one early morning a couple of months later, and Bruce died from smoke inhalation. Bugsy wouldn’t leave his side even as the flames engulfed the building. Dickson Street and Fayetteville lost a true craftsman, and someone that kept that town funky. Bruce was a true Ozarks rock star, guitar straps or no. He was beloved because he was so unique, so unabashed, so passionate about everything he did.

There’s a new Flying Possum on Block Street now, a short walk away from the old place, owned and operated by Bruce’s brother Bob. It looks clean and nice and friendly. Bugsy is there, too, but I couldn’t bear to visit the last time I landed in Fayetteville. I don’t really know why.

I wonder if my old Birkenstocks are around somewhere. It would feel good to walk in them again.

Photos are from Bruce’s MySpace page. Watch great videos of Bruce Walker here.

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