Archer City, Texas
There’s not much for a visitor to do in Archer City (pop. 1,800) besides visit the famous used-book stores of author Larry McMurtry. But that’s enough for us.
It’s near noon on a hot, wind-whipped Friday in late July, and Larry McMurtry, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Lonesome Dove and other novels, is ambling out of his flagship used-books store in Archer City, Texas. The bookstore is one of four McMurtry owns in this small oil-and-cattle ranching town a couple of hours north of Dallas.
I spot my chance and jog half a block to catch up with the famous writer, eager to find out why he tries to sell so many books in a town with just one stoplight. I mean, in the heavily trafficked NorthPark Center in Dallas, for example, there isn’t a single bookstore, much less four.
“Are you trying to bring ‘culture’ to the people of Archer City?” I ask.
“No,” McMurtry says evenly. “I don’t have anything to do with them. They’re aliens to me.”
The exchange underscores the uneasy relationship between Archer City and the 73-year-old McMurtry, who grew up in a pioneering family of local ranchers and whose books have often fictionalized the area’s residents. In some ways it’s a classic cultural clash—traditional small-town values versus a more “progressive” sensibility—and its roots are decades-old.
Many from Archer City were scandalized by 1971’s The Last Picture Show, an R-rated movie adapted from McMurtry’s book that generally portrayed the town as narrow-minded, depraved, and decaying. In other writings over the years, McMurtry has criticized the sentimentality, small-mindedness, “valuelessness,” and futility of the Texas ranching ethic. The coup de grace, though, may have been his screenplay (co-written with McMurtry’s life partner, Diana Ossana) for Brokeback Mountain, a 2005 film about two gay cowboys.
“We’ve got a lot of rednecks in town who just can’t handle that,” says Mary Slack Webb, an old friend of McMurtry’s who owns an Archer City bed-and-breakfast called the Lonesome Dove Inn. “But, we’ve got several different mindsets toward Larry in the town.
“Personally, I’m delighted to know him and appreciate him, and probably half the townspeople agree with me,” Webb says. “The other half don’t know him or don’t care, or have some long-term resentment that he got famous and they didn’t.”
Shelley Lewis, editor of the weekly Archer County News, agrees that McMurtry has a “mixed” image among the townspeople. “Some of the locals who knew him as a child, they think he’s gotten a little too ‘urban,’” Lewis says. “He is a little standoffish. I think we’re a little bit in awe of him, too.”
Tensions between the writer and the townspeople can be seen in essays written about Archer City by writing students at the University of North Texas, which is McMurtry’s alma mater. Since 2005, UNT’s Mayborn Graduate School of Journalism has offered a summer class in narrative nonfiction writing in Archer City. Under the direction of Mayborn writer-in-residence George Getschow, the aspiring authors live for at least a week in the little town, staying mainly at Webb’s Lonesome Dove Inn or at The Spur, Archer City’s other hotel.
During their visits, the students are charged with immersing themselves in the local culture. It’s hoped that becoming acquainted with such exotic creatures—ranch hands, oil roughnecks—will spark the students’ creativity, helping turn them into perceptive writers.
In one story titled The Broken Brotherhood, Mayborn student Paul Knight described the animosity toward McMurtry among regulars at the American Legion hall, Archer City’s only bar.
One patron there, a “cowboy with a steer’s face” who said he’d worked on the McMurtry ranch as a teenager, declared that Larry “wasn’t no cowboy,” Knight wrote. Another described the legendary novelist as looking “like he just crawled out of a piss hole.” A third ripped McMurtry for buying up the town’s real estate for his bookstores. “With all that money, he could do something good for Archer City, for our economy,” the man said. “But he wants to make it his economy.”
On the surface, that doesn’t seem to be McMurtry’s motive at all. In a 1999 book titled Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen, McMurtry told how he’d fallen in love with books and reading at age 6, and how they had expanded his horizons beyond the confines of his “bookless” hometown.
“Literature, as I saw it then, was a vast open range, my equivalent of the cowboy’s dream,” McMurtry wrote. “I felt free as any nomad to roam where I pleased, amid the wild growth of books. Eventually I formed my own book herds and brought them into more or less orderly systems of pasturage. I even branded them with a bookplate that had once been the family brand: a stirrup drawn simply and elegantly by my father.”
McMurtry plunged into “book ranching” some five decades ago, opening his own bookstore, called Booked Up, in Washington, D.C., in the early 1970s. Over the following decades he built up his reputation as both a novelist (Terms of Endearment, Somebody’s Darling, Desert Rose) and a book scout, seeking out rare finds at book sales and fairs, adding to his vast “herd.”
But eventually, McMurtry recalls, “we knew we had to get our book stock out of Washington.” And Archer City was the most logical place to relocate. “Real estate was cheap here. Labor was cheap,” he says, perched on a couch in his airy, three-story ranch-style house, built in 1923. “That’s why I came back.”
Today, McMurtry offers more than 300,000 volumes for sale at the four Booked Up stores scattered around the Archer City courthouse square. Located in buildings that once housed a car dealership, a café, a hardware store, and a grocery, the storefronts mainly attract “day-trippers” from Dallas and elsewhere, but in fewer numbers than they once did.
What’s more, it’s said that only two or three locals have ever set foot inside McMurtry’s stores. “It’s true, and I think Larry kind of resents that,” Webb says. “It’s not a highly literate town, and people who read at all like to read stuff they can check out of the local library and pass around. It’s a shame, because the bookstores are what keep our town alive now.”
Says McMurtry: “They’re not comfortable with all that knowledge being around.”
Webb may be right about the bookstores’ role. There’s not much for a visitor to do in Archer City (population about 1,800) besides visit McMurtry’s stores, or maybe take in a performance at the refurbished Royal Theater. In August, the Royal—which was featured prominently in The Last Picture Show—was presenting a local production of South Pacific, the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical.
Still, I can’t shake the bizarre image of all these high-profile bookstores in a town that’s so divided, to say the least, about the intentions of the stores’ celebrated owner, a man who says he considers his fellow citizens “aliens.” I tell Getschow, the Mayborn writer-in-residence, that it seems to me that McMurtry is “sticking it” to the townspeople with these stores, challenging them in some elemental way.
Replies Getschow: “He is.”
Where To Stay
Lonesome Dove Inn
225 W. Main St.
Archer City, TX 76351
The Spur Hotel
110 N. Center (Hwy. 79)
P.O. Box 1207
Archer City, TX 76351
What To Do
P.O. Box 877
Archer City, TX 76351
(South Pacific plays August 6, 7, 8, 14, 15, 21, 22)
216 S. Center
P.O. Box 1286
Archer City, TX 76351