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Lonesome Trove
Author Larry McMurtry's Strange Plot to Turn His Dying Texas Home Town Into Bookville, U.S.A.

By David Streitfeld
The Washington Post
Sunday, February 22, 1998; Page E01
   


Books are like marbles: They turn up on the edges of things. Those who scour the country for worthwhile secondhand volumes report the most success on the coasts, particularly in the metropolitan centers near the high-powered universities. A top-notch used-book store is as urban a phenomenon as a symphony orchestra or ballet company.

Larry McMurtry, however, has always been a contrarian -- the sort of fellow who could sharply criticize other Texas writers for dwelling too much on the legendary past and then win his greatest fame and acclaim for "Lonesome Dove," a novel about a cattle drive.

As his writing career winds down, McMurtry, 61, is determined to set up one of the country's biggest and best used-book stores in his home town of Archer City, a location convenient to him if no one else. The dusty town, located about two hours northwest of Dallas near the Oklahoma border, was on the way to nowhere until the novelist renamed it Thalia and used it as the setting for his breakthrough 1966 novel, "The Last Picture Show."

A good tale of lust and longing on the arid Texas plains, the book got a further boost in popularity from Peter Bogdanovich's 1971 movie adaptation, filmed on location. A morose 1987 sequel, "Texasville," was also eventually shot here. Anyone who's seen either will recognize the landscape.

"There was only one car parked on the courthouse square -- the night watchman's old white Nash," McMurtry writes in "Picture Show." "A cold norther was singing in off the plains, swirling long ribbons of dust down Main Street, the only street in Thalia with businesses on it."

It's even more woebegone now. There's one traffic light, permanently blinking red, at a corner of the town square, which has the handsome stone county courthouse in the middle. All around is desolation. An old gas station has been simply abandoned, its pump rusting. On the north side of the square is a set of crumbling storefronts, only two of them still operating. Adjoining is an empty lot, where the famed last picture show itself was located.

There are big plans for that last site. Two years ago, the Royal Theater Fund was formed to set up an arts center showcasing drama, music and film. It's an ambitious attempt to, as its organizers say, "enhance the culture of North Texas." At the moment, though, there's nothing in Archer City -- or McMurtryville, as it's been dubbed in the book trade -- but books and dreams.

Even the Texasville Cafe, which was built for the movie and then hoped to live on as a tourist attraction, is closed. In fact, there's not much of anywhere to eat in McMurtryville beyond a couple of gas station convenience stores and a Dairy Queen on the edge of town.

But there are a lot of books on cooking -- and every other conceivable subject. McMurtry wants to have a million books in his store, and he's halfway to that goal. Booked Up already is probably the largest quality used-book operation between, say, Serendipity in Berkeley, Calif., and the Strand in Manhattan.

That's quite an achievement, considering the novelist once called this "a bookless town, in a bookless part of the state." During an idle moment in "Picture Show," the teenage hero Sonny "considered reading for a while, but there was nothing there to read except a couple of old Reader's Digests and a few sports magazines." Those are about the only two kinds of reading material I didn't see in the converted car dealership that houses the bulk of Booked Up.

There's a certain anticipatory pleasure felt by print fanatics as they enter a place containing a vast amount of promising material, and I experienced it vividly as I stepped across the threshold. McMurtry wasn't around, which was just as well; he's turned down interview requests from this newspaper for at least a decade because of a longtime grudge he declines to specify.

Still, it's clear that he owns the place: There's a prominent case of his books in the front room, which is otherwise dominated by a Goldwater for President banner and cases of high-end literary material (Ezra Pound letters, stuffed full of crankiness and eccentric spelling, plus books by Hammett, Steinbeck, William Burroughs). But the real action is in the back room, which is big enough to house a 707. It's full of mysteries, literary biographies and all sorts of other things.

Organization varies from strong -- the mysteries are all neatly alphabetized -- to nonexistent. The Annual Report of the American Historical Association was next to Origins of Hydraulic Mining in California, which was up against the recent tract "Who Stole Feminism?" On another shelf, a minor Bernard Malamud novel, "Pictures of Fidelman," was next to "H Is for Heroin," which propped up "Caterpillars and Their Moths," hailing from 1902 but looking new and shiny. Prices tended to range between $10 and $25, but there were exceptions on both ends of the scale.

All this makes wandering around an imperative. And there are a lot of places to wander. Next to that big back room is an annex, which has a case featuring Texas writers, plus some sections that seem like afterthoughts (children, science fiction). Across the street are fiction, literature and poetry, spread out over three storefronts. Fiction in translation and other languages are in yet another building; drama is in a fourth building I never reached.

There is a lot of stuff that's fun to look at, even if you couldn't imagine wanting to buy it. Foremost in this category was a complete set of the Bobbsey Twins, those adorable tykes who were consumed by young readers as avidly in the 1920s and '30s as R.L. Stine's "Goosebumps" are today. The set of 53 volumes, including such classics as "The Bobbsey Twins on an Airplane Trip" and "The Bobbsey Twins in the Land of Cotton," was going for $800.

I also admired copies of E.C. Bentley's classic mystery "Trent's Last Case" in Gaelic, French, Italian, Spanish, Russian, Japanese, Polish and Danish editions, all of them in lavish slipcases. While the volumes didn't seem to be marked with prices, the set was clearly the perfect gift for that omni-lingual mystery fan on your list.

The serious book fanatic could spend all day here, and want to come back the next morning. If so, the Spur Hotel is the only bet. Luckily, it's a pleasure -- like something out of "Lonesome Dove," but less dusty.

A couple of days before my arrival, I phoned to ask if there was a room for Sunday night.

"We're closed Sunday nights," the woman replied. "We only have enough business to stay open on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays."

"That's too bad," I said, resigning myself to an anonymous motel.

"But if you want," she added, "we'll open it up just for you."

And they did. Things are pretty informal in McMurtryville. If you want to visit the building with the foreign literature collection, one of the clerks tosses you the key. And if you want to stay in the hotel when it's closed, you pay a modest surcharge -- bucking the price up all the way to $87.45 -- and they'll make arrangements.

The Spur was built in 1928 and died 42 years later. In 1989 it was reborn with all the necessary improvements, but the tin-stamped ceilings and exposed brick walls were kept as they were. It's probably not the best place for those violently opposed to hunting -- there are a stuffed bobcat and wild turkey in the lobby, plus the heads and antlers of various beasts in the breakfast room -- but it offers a restful night in fine surroundings.

Indeed, there was enough in my room to keep me busy for a bit, including an inscribed copy of McMurtry's novel about Billy the Kid, "Anything for Billy," and a 578-page history of Archer County that has so much to say it can spare only a sentence for the novelist.

If Booked Up succeeds, McMurtry will deserve at least a paragraph. He hopes to encourage other dealers to move into some of the abandoned storefronts, to create a whole village of booksellers. Such a development would make McMurtryville the first true book town in America. (Stillwater, Minn., has claimed the title for itself, but that seems mere hype; its stores are neither large enough nor varied enough.)

There are five now in Europe: Montolieu and Becherel in France, the Belgian village of Redu, the Dutch town of Bredevoort and the inspiration for them all, Hay-on-Wye in Wales. The public seems to like these places, and presumably some books are sold. The critical reception on Hay, however, turned negative some time ago.

"If anything was invented to deter people from looking at, reading, or collecting books, it has to be Hay," wrote Drif in his guide to British bookshops, characterizing one store as "all the books you never wanted." Other commentators agree that the bigger Hay became, the fewer interesting titles could be found there.

Book folk are a notably caustic sort, but there's some truth to their complaints. For one thing, since so many people are passing through Hay, any bargains are immediately snapped up. Meanwhile, worthwhile replacement volumes are hard to come by. A neighborhood bookshop can exist on whatever the local citizens are discarding, but a book town has much bigger appetites. Yet there are no warehouses where secondhand books can be found. The only assured supply is other stores.

McMurtry, for instance, has been buying the entire stocks of defunct bookstores, as well as thousands of volumes from Heritage in Los Angeles, Serendipity in Berkeley and Riverrun in Hastings, N.Y. Fine shops, all, but if those books were really hot, the stores would have sold them to their own customers long ago. Instead, a lot of them seem to be ho-hum filler.

Accordingly, while I was pleased with the books I found at Booked Up -- volumes of poetry by W.S. Merwin and Charles Wright, obscure Saul Bellow editions, some literary journals -- I wasn't truly excited or surprised by any of them. None were rare or cheap enough for that. The store has a huge range, but few thrills.

I left McMurtryville with mixed feelings: poorer, hungry and disappointed that McMurtry is too smart a bookman to leave rare editions lying around for a dollar. Still, I wanted to return almost immediately, to paw through the stacks again.

Book fanatics live on hope.

Details: Booked Up

Archer City is about two hours northwest of Dallas and 20 minutes south of Wichita Falls, at the corner of highways 79 and 25. The town has a modest Web site at http://www.archercity.org.

THE BOOKSTORE: Booked Up is at 216 S. Center. Stores hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Saturday. 940-574-2511.

HOTEL: The Spur (110 N. Center) has 11 rooms priced from $56 to $62 a night, and is open as a matter of course on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. They'll open the hotel for you on the other nights, too, for a small premium. Deer and quail hunts can be arranged through the hotel. P.O. Box 1047, Archer City, Texas 76351. 940-574-2501.

FOOD: The Spur serves a continental breakfast.

J and T's Pigout, a small, smoky cafe next to Booked Up, looks a little dicey but provided me with a hot beef sandwich and mashed potatoes, and a slice of good banana cake. Otherwise, the pickings are slim.

-- David Streitfeld

   
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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