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Larry McMurtry's Dream Job by Nancy Kolsti
Summer 2002      

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Larry McMurtry’s Dream Job

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    Photo of Larry McMurty

On an unseasonably warm March day, Archer City, Texas — population 1,748 — bears a strong resemblance to Thalia, the town Archer City resident and author Larry McMurtry (’58) created in The Last Picture Show.

Few vehicles rumble along Highway 79, the main street. The town’s one stoplight, adjacent to its only bank and the Archer County courthouse, sways in the West Texas wind. Nearby, the marquee of the rebuilt Royal Theater shimmers in the heat.

It’s easy to imagine the novel’s Sonny, Duane and Jacy gathering at the Royal or driving through town en route to nearby Wichita Falls.

But in Thalia, unlike in real-life Archer City, the teens couldn’t spend an evening browsing through more than 300,000 used books. Their creator is ensuring that Archer City residents and visitors have something to read through his bookstore, Booked Up.

“Books are the fuel of genius,” McMurtry says. “Leaving a million or so in Archer City is as good a legacy as I can think of for the region.”

To write is to read

Photo of Booked Up Inc. bookstoreOne of America’s best-known authors of Western fiction, McMurtry has written more than 20 novels. He published his first book, Horseman Pass By, in 1961.

While he’s achieved fame as an author, McMurtry’s true passion is selling books.

“The thrill of the book trade is like looking for the Holy Grail or the gold at the end of the rainbow,” he says. “I’ve bought books from about 10,000 sources, and I try to have something new in the store every week. People don’t want to come in and see the same old books.”

As a child in Archer City, with no bookstores and no public library, McMurtry had to be content with reading the same books over and over.

“I had a tremendous desire to read,” he says. “But the only books I had were a few given to me by my cousin.”

It wasn’t until McMurtry entered Rice University and later transferred to North Texas that he discovered a huge world of books. He compared the universities’ libraries to the unsettled West in his fourth book, In A Narrow Grave: Essays on Texas. The libraries, he wrote, were “countries as vast, as promising, and, so far as I knew, as trackless as the West must have seemed to the first white men who looked upon it.”

After graduating from North Texas, McMurtry returned to Rice University to earn a master’s degree. At both North Texas and Rice, he added to his book collection but often sold old books to buy new ones. Later, while in Stanford University’s writing program for one semester, he hunted for rare volumes for several San Francisco stores.

In 1965, McMurtry became a scout and dealer with a Houston book firm.

“I thought that book selling would be a good contrast to writing because the trick to writing is to read,” he says.

McMurtry moved to the Washington, D.C., area in 1970 to join the faculty of George Mason College. That same year, he and two partners bought a bookstore in Georgetown and renamed it Booked Up.

Photo of Booked Up Inc. bookstore

A hometown dream

McMurtry operated Booked Up in Georgetown as his writing career flourished. By the late 1980s, he had published more than 10 books and received the Pulitzer Prize for Lonesome Dove. He began to think seriously about an old dream: owning a huge used bookstore and locating it in a small book town —where a bookstore is the primary business.

“There are 10 or 12 book towns in the world. The most famous is Hay-on-Wye in Wales, which has a store started in 1962,” McMurtry says.

He turned to Archer City, which he had revisited often while living on the East Coast. In 1987, he opened the town’s first bookstore, The Blue Pig. When the store outgrew its space, McMurtry moved it to a vacant car dealership down the street from the courthouse and changed its name to Booked Up.

Today, Booked Up is the largest business in Archer City, with four buildings on the square. When he’s in town, McMurtry works in the store for about three hours a day, unpacking, hauling and shelving boxes of books. He also talks to fellow booksellers around the nation several times a week.

The books come from a variety of sources, McMurtry says.

“I’ve attended about 2,000 estate sales to acquire books, and there’s a huge amount of stock from about 26 bookstores that went out of business,” he says. “I also took a large amount of stock from the Georgetown store, which now sells only rare books.”

Books galore

Photo of Booked Up Inc. bookstoreBooked Up favors browsing and wandering. Employees only staff Building 1, which has the store’s one cash register. The other three buildings are unlocked and open until 4:45 p.m.

Finding specific volumes is a bit tricky. A store flier notes the books are arranged “Erratically/Impressionistically/ Whimsically/Open to Interpretation.” McMurtry says Booked Up has no computer catalog or master list of its inventory.

“I’ve never used a computer, and it would take months to put all the books online anyway,” he says. “We do answer requests from those looking for specific books, but I very much want to preserve the culture of old bookstores, where people come in looking for one book and leave with 10.”

In Building 1’s showcase room, patrons can find rare, out-of-print and first-edition books. Autographed books include works by Elmer Kelton, Pat Conroy and Shimon Peres, but none by McMurtry himself.

“I come to my bookshop to work, and I can’t get anything done if I sell my own books or autograph books that people bring in,” he says.

It’s difficult for Booked Up visitors not to notice McMurtry’s fame as a writer, however. Building 1 displays gifts from Lonesome Dove fanatics. A replica of the Hat Creek Cattle Co. and Livery Emporium sign from the book hangs on the wall. Characters’ names and quotes are painted on a tall birdhouse near the entrance.

With Booked Up’s stock nearing 350,000 volumes and the store’s four buildings close to capacity, McMurtry may rethink his idea of bringing 1 million books to his hometown.

“I don’t know if we can handle a fifth building,” he says.

But one thing’s for sure: If Sonny, Duane and Jacy lived in the real Archer City, they’d find it’s no longer bookless.

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