McMurtrys Dream Job
People and Pets
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
Few vehicles rumble along Highway 79, the main street. The towns
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.
Its easy to imagine the novels Sonny, Duane and Jacy
gathering at the Royal or driving through town en route to nearby
But in Thalia, unlike in real-life Archer City, the teens couldnt
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.
write is to read
of Americas best-known authors
of Western fiction, McMurtry has written more than 20 novels. He
published his first book, Horseman Pass By, in 1961.
While hes achieved fame as an author, McMurtrys 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. Ive
bought books from about 10,000 sources, and I try to have something
new in the store every week. People dont 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
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 wasnt 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 masters 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 Universitys writing program
for one semester, he hunted for rare volumes for several San Francisco
In 1965, McMurtry became a scout and dealer with a Houston book
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.
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,
He turned to Archer City, which he had revisited often while living
on the East Coast. In 1987, he opened the towns 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 hes 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.
books come from a variety of sources, McMurtry says.
Ive attended about 2,000 estate sales to acquire books,
and theres 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
Up favors browsing and wandering. Employees only staff Building
1, which has the stores 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.
Ive 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 1s 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 cant get anything
done if I sell my own books or autograph books that people bring
in, he says.
Its difficult for Booked Up visitors not to notice McMurtrys
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 Ups stock nearing 350,000 volumes and the stores
four buildings close to capacity, McMurtry may rethink his idea
of bringing 1 million books to his hometown.
I dont know if we can handle a fifth building,
But one things for sure: If Sonny, Duane and Jacy lived in
the real Archer City, theyd find its no longer bookless.