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Paul Voertman, former owner of iconic Denton bookstore, dies

Paul Voertman, Denton native and former owner of Voertman’s, the iconic Fry Street area bookstore, died Wednesday. He was 88.

He was born April 30, 1929, to Roy and Helena Voertman. Four years earlier, in 1925, Roy Voertman opened a general store near what is now the University of North Texas. Paul Voertman and his brother, Robert Voertman, grew up in the store, and with the campus as their backyard.

Paul Voertman attended kindergarten through the 12th grade at UNT's demonstration school. He left Denton to earn his bachelor’s degree with the intent of becoming a teacher. He graduated  from the University of Texas in 1949 with a degree in economics.

He enlisted in the U.S. Army and was stationed in Germany when he received the news in 1952 that his father had died. Voertman, just 23 years old, returned to Denton to take over the store and help his mother sell it. Over time, however, he proved to be a gifted businessman and transformed the college bookstore into the iconic Denton landmark it would become.

In 1988, the bookstore received a national shout-out from gothic fiction author Anne Rice (The Vampire Chronicles), who attended UNT, when she was interviewed in The New York Times.

"I remember walking into Voertman's bookstore and seeing all those racks of books. All this stuff I wasn't supposed to read as a Catholic. Aldous Huxley, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus. I had to know what was in these books,” Rice said.

In 1986, the Greater Denton Arts Council honored Voertman for helping the community understand the value arts and design brings to quality of life, both through his stores and his philanthropy. He established juried competitions for budding visual artists at UNT and Texas Woman’s University. He also collected paintings and sculpture.  

A generous man

Voertman gave freely and often quietly, friends said.

“He was very generous to arts groups, but there were also social causes,” said longtime Denton resident Herbert Holl.

Local beneficiaries of his largess included many artists and arts groups, the Cumberland Presbyterian Children’s Home and most recently the Monsignor King Outreach Center (a homeless crisis center) and the Denton Community Health Clinic, which he helped found.

Holl first met Voertman in 1987 when Holl was appointed arts council director. As the men became friends, Holl watched Voertman in action.

“There was a strong personality there, but he was kind to people,” Holl said. “He helped in ways beyond money.”

In 1990, Voertman retired from running the store and sold it to Nebraska Book Co., one of the nation’s largest used-textbook wholesalers.

He and his life partner, Richard Ardoin, continued to travel widely and attended many concerts, arts events and openings locally and around the world. After Ardoin died in 2002, friends said Voertman was never the same.

“That left a hole that he never quite filled,” Holl said.

To honor Ardoin's memory, Voertman donated money for the new $1.5 million concert organ in Winspear Hall at the Murchison Performing Arts Center. The university, in turn, named the organ for the two men. Officials also renamed a performance hall in the Music Building for Voertman after the room was renovated.

Several years ago, UNT officials announced Voertman had bequeathed about $8 million for scholarships. When he made the gift, Voertman recalled his own tuition payments were only $38 a semester.  

The store

Although the store’s look and inventory have changed over the years, Voertman’s remains a popular place for college students to buy books and supplies. 

In 2013, the store and neighboring properties along West Hickory and West Oak streets were sold to an out-of-state investment group.

The group bought about 38,000 square feet of commercial and apartment space, with 29,900 of that being Voertman’s.

The store has been at the center of redevelopment talks for that portion of West Hickory Street since 2015. EdR Collegiate Housing wanted to buy the building, tear it down and build a mixed-use project that would house hundreds of UNT students in an apartment complex and put Voertman's in the ground floor of the new building. 

The Planning and Zoning Commission and the City Council denied variances the developer wanted for the project late last year. Last month, EdR formally withdrew its plans for the property.

No new plans for the property have been announced.

Remembering Voertman

Even after her family moved away, Voertman's niece, Jami Paul Fernette, spent her summers helping at the store. She worked many jobs in the store, from stocking to helping customers. She was there each time the store was remodeled, too. 

"Every addition was scrupulously managed by my uncle," Fernette said. "I learned the values of quality and excellence from him."

She didn't know for many years the allowance she received while in college came from her uncle. She was a teaching assistant as an undergraduate, but the money she earned helped pay for extras. She could focus on her studies.

"He wasn't wealthy then, just a very good businessman," Fernette said. 

Over the years, she developed an appreciation for art that she learned from her parents and her uncle. Voertman also taught her the value of giving gifts quietly. 

"They [recipients] don't have that extra baggage that comes from knowing where the gift came from," Fernette said. 

Voertman was preceded in death by his parents, his brother and Ardoin. He is survived by Fernette and a nephew. 

Donations can be made in Voertman’s name to Denton Christian Preschool, Denton Community Health Clinic, Fred Moore Day Nursery School and Monsignor King Outreach Center.

According to a UNT press release, the campus plans a celebration of his life this fall. No other memorials are planned. 

PEGGY HEINKEL-WOLFE can be reached at 940-566-6881. 

FEATURED PHOTO: Paul Voertman in his Denton home in 2011.
DRC File Photo.