In Archer City, a small oil-and-cattle ranching town a couple of hours northwest of Dallas, Larry McMurtry, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Lonesome Dove and other novels, owns four used-book stores. He is the town’s most famous resident, though the relationship between 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, is an uneasy one.
A CITY DIVIDED: 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 several different mindsets toward Larry in the town,” says Mary Slack Webb, an old friend of McMurtry’s who owns a bed-and-breakfast called the Lonesome Dove Inn (225 W. Main St. 940-574-2700; www.lonesomedoveinn.com). “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.”
BOOK CLUB: McMurtry plunged into “book ranching” some five decades ago, opening his own bookstore, Booked Up, in Washington, D.C., in the early 1970s. Over the following decades he built up his reputation as both a novelist and a book scout, seeking out rare finds at book sales and fairs, adding to his vast “herd.” Eventually McMurtry had to get his book stock out of Washington, and Archer City was the most logical place to relocate, because “real estate and labor were cheap,” he says. Today, McMurtry offers more than 400,000 volumes for sale at the four Booked Up (216 S. Center St. 940-574-2511) stores scattered around the Archer City courthouse square. Located in buildings that once housed a car dealership, a cafe, a hardware store, and a grocery, the storefronts mainly attract “day-trippers” from Dallas and elsewhere. “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,” Webb says. “It’s a shame, because the bookstores are what keep our town alive now.” 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 (940-574-2489; www.royaltheater.org), which was featured prominently in The Last Picture Show. 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 George Getschow, an instructional assistant professor for the University of North Texas’ journalism school, which offers a summer class in narrative writing in Archer City under Getschow’s direction, 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."