In Memory of Richard Dorsett

Beloved local left his mark on Austin

Dorsett circa 1976
Dorsett circa 1976 (Photo by Joe Bryson)

Richard Dorsett – bookseller, film buff, music fanatic, writer, collector, intellectual, Red Sox fan, shoe enthusiast, conspiracy theorist, provocateur – died on October 26 at his home in South Austin of an aortic aneurysm.

His friends and family were devastated. Richard was one of the smartest and most fearless people they had ever known – the smartest guy in every room he entered. And the most honest. He made you think, even when he made you mad. He told the truth, even when the truth hurt.

Richard was born August 10, 1955, at the Chelsea Naval Hospital in Chelsea, Mass. His father, Harold, was a career Navy man and his mother, Carleen, was a homemaker. Richard was the youngest of three children and the family moved a lot – to Rhode Island; Washington, D.C.; Sweetwater; and Abilene. In between moves they would often decamp to Cambridge, Mass.; Richard’s youth there led him to be a lifelong Boston Celtics and Red Sox fan. He also loved comics and rock & roll.

In the mid-60s the family was stationed at the Naval Station, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and it was here that Richard, at age 11, went to the Navy Exchange and put every Beatles album on layaway; he eventually paid for them with his allowance. The family moved to Washington; Lima, Peru; and Cuba again, where Richard grew his hair long, got into jazz, and became a part of the naval base’s small counterculture. The family returned to Cambridge, where Richard’s father retired, and then moved to Austin in November 1971.

Richard went to Travis High School and would often find himself at an independent record store near the UT campus area called Inner Sanctum. One day in 1972 owner Joe Bryson wanted to go to an Alice Cooper concert in San Antonio and asked Richard if he would watch the store in return for a couple of records. Richard, who was 16, said yes (he chose Astral Weeks by Van Morrison and The Mothers of Invention Live at the Fillmore East) and eventually became one of the core group of employees at the coolest store in town. He already had eclectic tastes and soon developed a reputation for brutal honesty when it came to customer service. “Don’t buy that,” he’d say to someone standing at the counter with an album by an artist Richard detested. “You should listen to this” – and he’d pull out the new Jonathan Richman or Elvis Costello. He was known to refuse to sell certain albums – and to hurl offending vinyl against the wall.

After Richard graduated from Travis in 1973, he enrolled at UT. He wanted to be a journalist, but he walked out of student orientation when he realized he already knew enough to be a writer. He was an avid reader and devoured everything, especially science fiction. He found his way into the fledgling community of Austin sci-fi writers, men like Bruce Sterling, Bill Wallace, Howard Waldrop, and Steve Utley, guys who loved Richard’s quirky mind and bizarre tastes. Richard would also befriend William Gibson, who would name the protagonist of Neuromancer, his groundbreaking cyberpunk novel, “Henry Dorsett Case” in honor of Richard.

Richard grew a bushy mustache and looked like a Turkish pop star; girls found him dreamy. He was drawn to the punk and New Wave scene developing in Austin and became locally famous when he and several others were arrested during a riot at a Huns show at Raul’s. He co-wrote the lyrics to the F-Systems song “People” and was also writing about music for fanzines and the Daily Texan, the UT student paper. Richard never went to UT – nor any other university. The smartest guy in the room came by his smarts naturally. He even started his own literary magazine, Ground Zero, which would cover, he wrote in its first issue (there would be two), “weird fiction, polemical works on openly elitist topics, and rock criticism.”

In 1980 Richard began working at the state Legislature as a proofreader; soon he was writing about music for The Austin Chronicle. His collections were growing, especially his trove of books, which he would seek out from both collectors and yard sales. He amassed other things too, from antique erotic postcards to Sixties rock & roll posters and provocative bumper stickers. For years, he had one on his truck that read “I eat the flesh of the living … and I vote!”

In February 1988 Richard married Laura Maclay; a few years later he opened Olympia Books, an independent store on Guadalupe Street. He and Laura separated in 1993 and Richard returned to the bachelor life. At his home in North Austin, he would host poker games with his friends, playing loud, abrasive music that got louder as the night went on. More than one friend accused him of using music as a weapon. Richard would laugh, make one of his scabrous, antiquated ejaculations (“Holy snappin’ assholes!” or “God’s bloody hooks!”) and turn up the music. He would chastise his friends for not being open to new music, for falling into the hypocrisies of middle age, for being sentimental. He loved the new, the verifiable, the dangerous – and he let you know it. Richard raised cantankerousness to an art form.

But he was also a loyal friend and a good listener, talking and sharing stories deep into the night. Richard was a generous gift giver – a rare book, a fine bottle of port, a vintage political poster. He liked nice things, for himself – he wore ascots and nice shoes, distinctive hats and fine coats – and his friends.

He worked as an assistant production manager at South by Southwest in the mid-Nineties, but in 1997, wanting a change, he moved to New Haven, Conn., and worked for the William Reese Company, a rare book seller. Richard filled orders, cataloged books, and oversaw the warehouse; he would spend hours puttering around in the back, perusing ancient manuscripts. He also took care of a cousin in Cambridge who was stricken with mouth cancer. His cousin died in December 2001; Richard’s mother passed away two months later and he returned to Austin for the funeral.

Richard decided to return for good. He missed the music and his friends, who were happy to have him back. Most of his friends were married now with families. They’d have dinner parties and Richard was usually the first person to show up, on time and carrying a good bottle of wine. He would often leave early, because there was a band he had to go see at a club; Richard loved listening to music in clubs.

But Richard also loved solitude; he was comfortable with himself and could easily spend several days at home, reading, listening to obscure jazz albums, watching old movies, going through his amazing collection of cool stuff that he had collected over the years. For all his post-modern aesthetics, Richard was an old-fashioned guy. He didn’t have cable TV and he was one of the last people in Austin to get a cell phone. In many ways he was a loner.

Over the last decade Richard took care of his father (who died in 2005) and worked for SXSW, Vulcan Video, and MovieArt. He also sold books, records, films, posters, and other memorabilia from his collection. He was upbeat toward the end, planning on moving to a new house in the Zilker neighborhood and working again for the state Legislature.

Richard showed his true colors in August, when his close friend Brent Grulke died. Richard was the first to comfort Brent’s wife, Kristen, who also happened to be one of Richard’s closest friends. He helped her through the devastating aftermath of Brent’s death – both practically (using his expertise to organize and sell Brent’s prodigious collection of records, books, and CDs) and emotionally. Richard may have been at heart a loner, but he knew how to connect with people, how to take care of them. He was a good man and a great friend.

He was also a superlative iconoclast and a character nonpareil. Holy snappin’ assholes! We’ll never see his likes again.

Richard is survived by his sister Denise, brother Charles, three nieces, and three nephews. A memorial service will be held November 30 at the Palm Door, 401-A Sabine St., in Austin.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

New recipes and food news delivered Mondays

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle