Unexpected treasures come in many forms, but Donus Roberts, owner of DDR Books in Watertown, had no idea what awaited him when an unsolicited phone call arrived.
Would he be interested in a large collection of books stored in a house in Brookings?
At first he was reluctant to acquire the approximately 3,300 books owned by Kelly Biddle of Brookings. Biddle was downsizing and his art, model train and book collection had to go.
Roberts said Biddle’s nephew told him that Biddle’s main requirement was “that his collection go to someone who loves books”.
There’s probably no one more fitting than Roberts, a South Dakota Hall of Famer who served as director of forensics at Watertown High School for 39 years.
Being a lifelong book connoisseur and owner of one of South Dakota’s most interesting bookstores, Roberts was the logical person to acquire the books.
Around 1,000 books donated to booking communities
When he first saw the collection, Roberts decided there were too many books he would never use. But he found a way to donate about 1,000 books dealing with science and education topics to Native American reservation communities in the state.
There were nearly 2,300 books left, and he knew they would be a nice addition to the more than 45,000 books in his South Maple Street store.
In Biddle’s collection was an extensive set of books on World War II and those dealing with the colonization of the American western frontier.
“It’s just amazing, the collection he had,” Roberts said. “There are incredible, incredible books on the western frontier.”
There are also “hundreds of biographies” and many boxes “about trains, planes and battleships”.
“He also had a great collection of humor,” he said. There are also unopened 3D puzzles.
Nearly 200 boxes of books
The collection was a major undertaking to move and much of it remains in the nearly 200 boxes scattered throughout the store.
“It’s kind of like swallowing an elephant,” Roberts said.
The collection is prompting a major redesign of the store in anticipation of an unveiling in June during a celebration of the sixth anniversary of the store’s opening.
“That’s when the real collection will be launched,” he said.
Throughout his career as one of the nation’s most respected debate and speech coaches, Roberts always knew he would open a bookstore when he retired.
He bought his first book “as soon as I could afford one. I’ve always been a book lover,” he said.
People knew he had a rare collection of books during his teaching years, but the library exploded in size during his retirement.
With the addition of Biddle’s books, his store now offers an unparalleled collection of South Dakota books.
Too much ‘thrown away’ state history
“It was my pursuit of the history of South Dakota and the western frontier that drove me more than anything,” Roberts said. “Much of South Dakota’s history is just thrown away, ending up in landfills.”
Opening an entire bookstore when the world is devoured with information on the internet might not seem like such a good idea. But Roberts has seen younger audiences come through its doors. People often spend eight or more hours a day on computers, he explained.
“When they sit at home, they don’t want the same synthetic experience,” he said.
In Roberts’ bookstore, they can hold the story in their hands. A Collector’s Book from Biddle’s Collection is a tome containing many comic book illustrations that ran in Stars and Stripes during World War II.
“Books are the best place to learn,” Roberts said. “I’ve traveled the world and barely left home.”
When Roberts decided to start the bookstore with his wife Lovila, also a retired teacher, “We never imagined it would get this big,” he said.
“I haven’t looked back,” he said, “It’s been good for the town to have something like this store.”
About the time those words left her mouth, two new customers entered.
“Where do you come from?” Roberts asked.
“Granite Falls, Minn. was the response.
Brad Johnson is a Watertown businessman and journalist active in national and local affairs.