For author and bookseller Larry McMurtry, huge auction may be the beginning of the end
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ARCHER CITY, Texas -- This is Larry McMurtry's hometown. Take one look around the hardscrabble landscape, meet a few of the town's 1,850 Texas-tough inhabitants and you'll discover the inspiration for "The Last Picture Show" and "Lonesome Dove."
Mr. McMurtry has been defining Texas for more than 40 years. But he can't live forever, right? It's time, he admits, to get his affairs in order.
"I'm 76 and I'm thinking about my mortality," he said. "I've just started thinking about these things recently."
The first step is "The Last Book Sale."
Mr. McMurtry is not only one of the 20th century's greatest American novelists. He has spent the past 25 years buying, selling and collecting high-quality hardback books. Some 450,000 volumes, the fruits of his labor, now sit on the shelves of Booked Up, a retail store that consists of four buildings in downtown Archer City.
Here's the problem as he himself frames it.
"I do not want to leave 500,000 books to my son and grandson," he said. "They are literate people, but they are not book people. It would be a terrible burden to them. They don't know the trade, how it works or any of that stuff. I do."
He is not going out of business. He simply planned to auction off 300,000 volumes in separate lots of 100-200 books this weekend. The more valuable books he planned to sell individually -- a first edition of Elmore Leonard's "The Bounty Hunters," for example. Or "The American Scene" by Henry James.
"If we get $1 million from the auction, I would be very surprised," he said. "People come to auctions to get a bargain, not to pay top dollar."
If he sells all 300,000 books, three of his four stores will become empty. The remaining Booked Up No. 1, a former car dealership, will still display 150,000 books on its floor-to-ceiling shelves. Books priced at $50 to $75 are Mr. McMurtry's bread and butter.
Book dealers from across the United States descended on Archer City this week to survey the merchandise. Few of them were aware of the backstory that explains why a famous author tried to add books to his hometown's traditional economy of cattle, crops and oil.
Mr. McMurtry first opened a bookstore in Washington, D.C. He wanted to acquire more inventory, but commercial real estate prices made space unaffordable. The same was true in most big cities. In Archer City, however, he could buy downtown buildings for $30,000 or $40,000 apiece.
Thus was born the experiment to transform Archer City into "a book town."
David Berkman, a bookstore owner in Fredericksburg, Texas, arrived in Archer City on Monday to register as a bidder at this weekend's auction. He was shocked when McMurtry greeted him on the street and personally directed him to the auctioneer's registration table. And he was elated when the author agreed to sign a book for him.
"I kept my cool," an excited Mr. Berkman said. "This is a once-in-a-lifetime event."
Abby Abernathy, a local rancher and owner of Archer City's Spur Hotel, is keeping his fingers crossed for Mr. McMurtry this weekend.
"When an old man sells his herd, he's getting ready to hang it up," Ms. Abernathy said. "I don't want Larry to be disappointed with this auction. These books are his herd."
Mr. McMurtry and his wife, Faye, divide their time between Archer City and Tucson. She was the widow of Ken Kesey, who wrote the classic "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." Mr. Kesey died 12 years ago. She and Mr. McMurtry got married last year.
When they're in Archer City, they live in a big two-story home built of tan brick. Locals call it "the mansion." Their backyard looks over the Archer City Country Club's golf course, which is covered by a thirsty layer of thin, brown grass. A lake, which appears to be drying up, sits adjacent to the golf course.
More important than the house, however, is the private library inside it -- an estimated 28,000 volumes. Mr. McMurtry has written a book about how he assembled the library, but has not released it to the public yet.
Another question arises: What will become of the house and its library after his death? Like Mark Twain's boyhood home in Hannibal, Mo., will it become a roadside attraction for literate tourists?
"I would not be surprised if more people come here and at some point my home becomes a place to be visited," he said. "The library presents a problem, though. It needs to stay together. But I really don't know what will happen."
Stand next to the town's only stoplight at the downtown intersection of Highways 25 and 79, throw a rock and you could hit most of the major institutions in Archer City -- the courthouse, the Wildcat Cafe, the hotel, the library, city hall, the weekly newspaper office, two of the Booked Up stores and the Royal Theater, which served as symbolic linchpin for "The Last Picture Show."
It's not like Manhattan or Georgetown, where a celebrity can disappear into a sidewalk crowd. He is a familiar figure, shambling along in his Nikes, a collared shirt and jeans held up by brown suspenders and a belt for insurance.
Mr. McMurtry is cordial to people who greet him on the street, in the cafe or in the bank. But the locals know he isn't a chatty good ol' boy who lingers long in small talk. And anyone who thinks buying one of his books for $25 is a ticket to spend time with him is in for a surprise.
Over the years, townsfolk and the author have carved out an uneasy peace. Those who once saw him as an uppity rich-and-famous guy have mellowed. And he has mostly ceased to paint himself as unappreciated for the artistic patina he brought to a blue-collar town.
"I am very well-treated here and get along fine with my neighbors and there is no adversarial element in it," he said.
His money, his labor as a book dealer and his cache as a writer undoubtedly brought a lot of people to town and created an incalculable multiplier for the local economy. The scent of literacy also drew some people to live in Archer City.
David Levy, a lawyer who once worked at the United Nations, moved to town eight years ago. The town's proximity to family members in Fort Worth was important, but he added, "Larry and what he was doing here was a considerable factor."
In the final analysis, no one really knows how Mr. McMurtry feels about his long experiment to turn Archer City into a book town.
"I feel very good about everything," he said this week. "We have customers from all over the world. We probably have more customers in China than in Archer County. We have what a book town should have."
As for his own life, how could he not be happy? He won a Pulitzer Prize for "Lonesome Dove." He and his writing partner, Diana Ossana, won an Oscar for their screenplay for "Brokeback Mountain." He is still writing. A coffee-table book on George Armstrong Custer is due for release in November.
Through it all, he found a balance that worked for him while pursuing three careers simultaneously: screenwriter, novelist and book dealer/collector.
"Writing is solitary," he explained. "Hunting books and putting together collections of books is social."
And how does he wish to be remembered?
"I don't worry about things like that," he said. "Not me."
First Published August 12, 2012 12:00 am