An old show poster, torn, yellowed, and stapled to wall behind the counter. Brown scraps of rawhide on the crumbling floor tiles. An acoustic guitar.
The smell of leather and cigarettes.
Flying Possum Leather is one of the last remnants of a Dickson Street that existed before the enhancement project. Before the Walton Arts Center. Even before some of you were born.
Owner Bruce Walker set up shop in his location, just across the street from George’s Majestic Lounge in 1976, almost 33 years ago. He’s been making his custom sandals, leather belts and guitar straps by hand for people from Fayetteville and around the world ever since.
“There aren’t any stores like this left in the country.” Walker told us. “This is last of the Mohicans.”
In fact, Flying Possum Leather, according to Bruce, is the third-oldest business on Dickson Street that still has its original owner, with only Collier Drug and Underwood’s being older.
“When I first went into business, the edge of Fayetteville was where Fiesta Square is now. Past that, the rest of Fayetteville was mainly woods until you got to Springdale.” Walker said. “I opened my store on September 13th, 1976.”
Bruce is an expert in all things leather, but he also knows more about the human body, particularly your feet, than anyone who isn’t in the medical profession. Perhaps even more.
“There are 206 bones in the human body, and 56 of them are in your feet.” Bruce told us. “But what they don’t tell you in the medical books is that most of the problems people have with their bodies stem from their feet.”
He is referring to his custom made sandals, which are molded to fit the feet of the wearer, and according to Bruce, are the closest thing to footwear that allow you to walk around as God intended, in your bare feet.
“Conventional shoes have an elevated heel, and a tapered toe. But your foot is an arch, and you can’t put an elevated heel on an arch. It just doesn’t work.”
Bruce has delivered this passionate speech to most likely everyone who has set foot in his store since he opened it. It is familiar to anyone who has ever met him, either in the store, across the street at George’s, or any given night on Dickson Street.
He’s even developed a complex theory around his sandals involving geometry and the golden ratio about how the human body is structured, and how conventional shoes can throw your whole body out of alignment.
In addition to his custom sandals, Bruce has been making electric guitar straps for a long time as well. He invented an acoustic guitar strap just a few years ago that is making a name for itself with some of the biggest musical acts in the country.
Anyone who’s ever played an acoustic guitar knows that it’s nearly impossible to use a guitar strap on one without a compromise. There’s a place to attach the strap to a peg on one end, but there isn’t a place to attach the other end of the strap without modifying the guitar (ie drilling a hole or tying a shoelace beyond the bridge on the headstock).
In 1996, Bruce invented his signature acoustic guitar strap that addresses this problem. The unique design is worn a little differently, but puts the guitar in perfect playing position without the need to modify the guitar, with a leather strap extending to hug the front of the guitar just below the neck that stabilizes it for the player. It’s really quite ingenious.
He received a patent on his design in 2006, and Neil Young got the first strap, followed by Willie Nelson, and Walker’s friend Jed Clampit.
“John Tyson was in the shop, and I showed him the guitar strap, and he said ‘That’s pretty cool. You ought to make one of those for Neil.'” Bruce told us. “I thought ‘yeah right,’ but John knows him, and they’re good friends, so the first one went to Neil Young.”
Since then, Connor Oberst has been seen on the cover of Rolling Stone with Bruce’s unique acoustic strap on his guitar, and Bruce’s strap will be featured in up-and-coming artist Zac Brown’s new music video (along with a pair of Bruce’s custom sandals). Willie Nelson used Bruce’s guitar strap on his guitar at the Country Music Awards.
The growing attention of Bruce’s acoustic guitar straps among the nation’s best musicians is impressive, but for us, Flying Possum Leather’s legacy is on Dickson Street. A lot has changed in Fayetteville since Bruce opened his shop in 1976, and the fact that Flying Possum has endured all the changes is a testament to Bruce’s resilience, his personality, and the quality of his products.
A lot of businesses have come and gone on Dickson Street in the 33 years that Flying Possum Leather has existed in his current location. Bruce mentioned Calabash Pottery (formerly behind the building that houses Qdoba), and the Boardwalk Cafe that used to be next door as a few that he really missed.
“When we had the Dickson Street Enhancement project, that was tough on everybody. It was (supposed to be) a nine-month project that took two years, and most of the retail disappeared down here.” Bruce told us.
But Flying Possum Leather has become a relic of the “old Dickson street” that those who have been in Fayetteville long enough to remember it look back upon with fondness.
Even Bruce’s dog Bugsy is often referred to as the “Dickson St. Dog.”
Bruce said the secret to the longevity of Flying Possum Leather is in the quality of his products.
“I’m real particular about the quality of my materials. The products you buy here are top quality products. The belts I make aren’t just belts, they’re tools. My belts are made to last for years. These custom sandals will last for years.” He said.
Dickson Street would not be Dickson St. without Flying Possum Leather. For the last 33 years, Bruce Walker’s small leather shop across from George’s has become a fixture of our city, with Bruce serving as an unofficial ambassador for Fayetteville to the visiting bands and musicians that have walked curiously into his store.
Flying Possum Leather truly is the “the last of the Mohicans” as Bruce called it, and in more ways than one. There may not be another shop like Bruce’s left in the country, but there is also no place left on Dickson Street that embodies the place, both as it used to be, and as some feel it should always be in the way that Flying Possum does.
These places are the soul of old Fayetteville that have shaped this place that we love so much, and Flying Possum Leather is another reason that Fayetteville Rules.
[Photos by Jon Schluess except Bugsy, by Dustin Bartholomew]