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The rare passion of Larry McMurtry and friends
By Richard West |

THE FACT THAT David Grossblatt found the private library in University Park by writing a letter to a dead woman even surprised novelist and veteran book collector Larry McMurtry. When McMurtry heard the story, he flew into Dallas from Booked Up, his Georgetown, D.C., antiquarian bookstore, to inspect the library for possible purchases for his Dallas Booked Up store on Worthington Street. McMurtry and his friend Grossblatt were going to join Bill Gil-liland, the partner/manager of Booked Up and long-time Dallas bookseller, to examine the woman’s library.

McMurtry began book scouting in 1960 while studying at Stanford University, and later perfected his skills prowling the shelves and attic of Lloyd Harper’s used bookstore in Deep Ellum. He knows all the scams, tricks, spiels and wacky ploys, called Low Peasant Cunning, practiced by book and antique scouts. He even wrote a novel, Cadillac Jack, about the flea market-scouting world. But writing a letter to a dead woman is a new bit of Low Peasant Cunning. He is not surprised, however, that the author of this L.P.C. is David Grossblatt, the best book scout in Dallas, a collector/seller himself and an expert on Texana and books on the American West.

Grossblatt takes books seriously. He once asked his mother, only recently recovered from triple-bypass surgery, to stand for four hours in an estate-sale line, then positioned her directly against a bookcase, arms outstretched to thwart other book seekers, while he cased the rest of the joint. He spent years in “missionary work,” cultivating friendships with estate appraisers and lawyers, people who work in classified ad departments, “pickers’-the incurably addicted garage-sale habitue’s-and everyone even remotely connected to the book business. He has tramped through more than 11,000 garage and estate sales during the last 12 years -from clapboard houses smelling of sweat and dirty clothes to North Dallas mansions.

McMurtry and Grossblatt have a lot in common. “I keep on the move constantly,” writes McMurtry as antique scout Cadillac Jack McGriff, “covering as much as I can of the vast grid of dealers, collectors, accumulators, pack rats, antique shops, thrift shops, junk shops, estate sales, country auctions, bankruptcy sales, antique shows, flea markets and garage sales.. .always looking for the diamond in the popcorn of life.” Jack also says, “Anything can be anywhere,” a statement that is to scouting what E=MC2 is to physics.

LARRY MCMURTRY sits in Café Rin-c6n on Harry Hines awaiting his beloved bean-and-cheese nachos and sipping iced tea. He is dressed in his customary on-the-road outfit: jeans, boots, blue button-down shirt, gray sweater, corduroy jacket. “Book collecting tends to be the freshest money there is,” he says. “Old money collects paintings, Chinese porcelain, furniture, silver. Los Angeles is a great book collector town. They have new money and the books. Houston and Dallas have money but not many books. I chose Dallas for Booked Up because Mr. Gilliland was available. And it is closer to my ranch in Archer County.”

In the summer of 1961, McMurtry walked into McMurray’s Book Store on Commerce and asked Bill Gilliland for a job to help support himself and his pregnant wife. Gilliland put the new novelist (Horseman, Pass By had just been published) to work sorting and stacking books at the McMurray warehouse in the Trinity Industrial District. And McMurtry continued to book scout.

“I decided to collect original paperbacks. So I got the list of the first 500 from the oldest publishers-Pocket Book, Dell, Bantam, Gold Medal, Avon-and began looking.” McMurtry also continued to scout the subject he knew best, modern American fiction, and recalls a significant early buy.

“It was an interesting period. About 1963, I bought a beautiful copy of The Great Gatsby from Sawnie Aldredge for $13.50. I knew the same book had sold at a New York auction for $150. The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell To Arms, books like that, sold for $25 to $30. But after that auction, they all increased seven or eight times in value. My partner in Georgetown, Marcia Carter, sold that same Gatsby last year for $2,500.”

Carter is the granddaughter of E.L. DeGolyer, the founder of the energy consulting firm of DeGolyer and MacNaughton. Her grandfather was the premier book collector of Dallas and one of the most important in the United States. He amassed more than 100,000 books on four different subjects of great distinction: English literature, science and transportation, theology and books on the American Indian. In 1971, Carter and McMurtry opened Booked Up on 31st Street N.W. in Georgetown, selling “rare books, voyages, travels and explorations, literature, books about books, literary criticism,” according to the Directory of Specialized American Book Dealers.

But McMurtry regards himself as a gen-eralist, a man in need of variety. He isn’t interested in purchasing books on sociology, economics or political biography (there’s a surplus of these in Washington, DC.) but the taboo subjects are few. “What is your favorite dish?” someone asked Henry David Thoreau. “The nearest,” he replied. So it is with McMurtry and books. Above all else- novelist, screenwriter, critic, teacher-he is a bibliophile, a lover of books.

McMurtry stocked his Dallas shop with 3,000 to 4,000 books from the 15,000 in Georgetown, often driving down, hauling the 750 to 800 books that he knows from years of roadwork will fit in his 1984 Cadillac. “We’ve also bought some good libraries here in Dallas since we opened last August,” says Gilliland, a collector for 33 years. A particularly good find was a complete Dobie library.

Gilliland is excited about another recent Dallas purchase, a 39-volume, first-edition, calf-bound set of the works of American historian George Bancroft, on sale for $3,500. One section of Booked Up’s front room contains other expensive, beautifully bound sets: 24 volumes of William Thackeray ($400), 11 volumes of Thoreau ($500), an 18-volume Diary of Samuel Pepys ($350) across from choice American literature items such as William Faulkner’s A Fable ($200), Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea ($225), and a signed Norman Mailer’s Barbary Shore ($150). An eye-catcher in a back room is the huge Catalogue of Jewels and Works of Art from the J. Pier-pont Morgan Collection ($3,000), which McMurtry bought from the late Stewart Alsop’s library.

There is a small Texana and Western Americana section and a few of the author’s books. McMurtry’s earlier novels, screenplays, speeches and other literary mementos command high prices. Serendipity Books in Berkeley has a listing for Coexistence Review 1 and 2, a literary quarterly that McMurtry contributed to and helped edit during his senior year at North Texas State University in 1958. Asking price: $2,750.

From time to time, McMurtry had bought books from Grossblatt, including a 17th-century book on stars and planets that sits on a shelf in the back room of Booked Up. And now, Grossblatt’s letter to a dead woman brought him back to see what riches lay concealed in University Park.

ONE AFTERNOON, a bookseller mentioned to Grossblatt that a customer’s library might be for sale. Grossblatt knew the customer’s family and had sold the woman books on Texana and New Mexico fiction. He knew of the excellent Carl Hertzog collection that she had donated to SMU. She also had a superb library of W.H. Hudson, author of Green Mansions, and other books on South and Central American travel and natural life as well as books by Hudson’s friend, writer R.B. Cunninghame Graham. Grossblatt knew that she had died several years before.

“I knew her husband didn’t know me and I wouldn’t get in the door,” Grossblatt admits. “I wrote his late wife the letter asking about the sale possibilities, knowing he would read it. I got a call two days later.”

Grossblatt saw the books and verified that it was a fine library, well worth buying. He also realized he would need financial help. Bill Gilliland needed less than a minute’s scrutiny to know that his partner would be interested.

Grossblatt and Gilliland met McMurtry at D/FW Airport the next day, and by 4 p.m. they were examining 650 fine books. The asking price was $9,500, $1,000 higher than the original offer. Grossblatt and McMurtry agreed to the price on the condition that the seller would include 200 Texana volumes that Grossblatt originally had rejected. Done.

“OF COURSE, IT’S the thrill of the hunt” that makes book scouting worthwhile, Grossblatt said on a recent Saturday after a morning of criss-crossing Dallas in search of sales. He is a low-strung man, 43, invariably dressed in boots, jeans, a moderately styled Western shirt (subtle yolk, no stitched roses) and now, almost gaunt at 165 pounds, 120 fewer than he carried three years ago. The drastic weight loss illustrates perhaps his chief trait: dogged persistence. He was fond of junk food and ate four meals a day; the next day, after a doctor’s warning that he needed to shed the extra pounds, he switched to a banana breakfast, salad at noon, no exceptions.

In 1972, when Grossblatt decided to quit selling remodeling materials door-to-door for his father and learn about rare books, he attacked his new profession with the same fanaticism. Van Allen Bradley’s Book Collector’s Handbook of Values and later John Holmes Jenkins’ Basic Texas Books became his Bibles. He read all the other books-about-books, catalogs and auction records he could find. He became friends with experts like McMurtry, Dick Bossie at Aldredge Book Store, Johnny Jenkins at Jenkins Publishing Co. in Austin and Bill Gilliland. Now, Grossblatt issues his own catalogs, has an office at Vikon Village in Garland with more than 4,000 exceptional books and is revising two catalogs of the renowned Western book collector, Ram6n Adams, on his favorite subjects: outlaws and the cattle industry. Grossblatt is a splendid example of do-it-yourselfery. He’s come a long way for a man who didn’t attend college and once made his living hustling pool and teaching sporting goods-department employees how to bore holes in bowling balls.

By noon this Saturday, David Grossblatt had been to 11 garage and estate sales, pawing over the usual gallimaufry of used books, magazines-anything containing words except telephone directories-for four hours with distressingly meager results. Sometimes, Grossblatt thinks that discovering rare books in Dallas is about as likely as finding a picture of Gandhi in Tiffany’s.

The day had begun with Grossblatt arriving two hours early for a garage sale-he always ignores all ad information except the address-pulling books out of boxes in a musty bachelor’s apartment in Oak Lawn, so hermetically sealed that a practitioner of ju-jitsu would have had trouble raising the windows. His findings: the usual Michener paperbacks, The Exorcist and a few Stephen King’s, but not Dark Tower.

“Dark Tower is a fantasy-Western by King published in 1982. Five hundred limited signed copies, $60 each. Now they are worth from $350 to $600,” Grossblatt explained. “He is one of the most collectible living authors, and some of the five books he wrote using the name of his friend, Richard Bachman, are particularly valuable.”

Next stop was a widow’s Lakewood bungalow filled with mother country orthodox bric-a-brac: embroidered samplers, an upright piano, antimacassars-all a nice résumé of a middle-class English home near White Rock. Grossblatt bought a handsome book on wild orchids (“wildflower books on specific areas or specific plants sell well”) and a few Michener hardbacks he planned to sell to his friends, Phil and Mary Anne Stout, owners of Mary Anne’s Books at Vikon Village.

He pushed on: a University Park “re-do” (Book-of-the-Month Club novels, National Geographics, Reader’s Digest condensed books); next, on Velasco, off Greenville, a “move-in,” an empty house rented for the weekend and stuffed with warehouse antiques and a few household items to lend an air of legitimacy. For $1, he got a 1939 Hock-aday commencement book called “Taps” and a history of the Highland Park Methodist Church. “I know the woman running this one,” Grossblatt said as he walked out. “Her husband’s in prison. She’s just trying to make a buck.” Then he hit a long succession of very dry holes in North Dallas.

“Old ladies’ clothes, wigs, costume jewelry,” the ad read. The chances of finding a Harold Robbins paperback, much less a rare Eudora Welty or Flannery O’Connor, seemed slim as parchment. Of course, that’s what Grossblatt thought just before he found a letter written by Andrew Jackson stuck inside a 50-cent Life magazine which later sold for $5,000; or the Porfirio Salinas painting he bought for $50 and also sold for $5,000.

“Why, yes, I have some books,” replied the elderly lady after cranking up both hearing aids. “Back here in my study.” The study had three walls of handsome books: beautifully bound Shakespearean plays, Victorian literature and books on Texas. Our hostess was the founder of the Dallas Shakespeare Club and a teacher of the Bard at SMU for 50 years. She was also every bit Grossblatt’s equal as a practitioner of Low Peasant Cunning.

He quickly made three stacks of desirable books, but couldn’t get her to part with the notes and files of the Shakespeare Club. He offered $75. “Son,” she replied, “do you know what a new book costs today? Why, that’s a 1931 J. Frank Dobie and it has my name in it.” Grossblatt tried again, pulling out a $100 bill. “My, I’ve never seen one of those. How nice,” the woman said. “All right, but don’t tell the other ladies in the front room.” Two hours after knocking on the front door, Grossblatt had a stack of good books and the Shakespeare scholar was dozing on the couch.

“Those experiences make the drudgery worthwhile,” Grossblatt said. “I’ll try again on the papers and books she wouldn’t sell. I learned about Shakespeare, met a great person and got $100 worth of books that I can sell for $300.”

Grossblatt’s chief competition isn’t other scouts. It’s relatives, libraries, universities and other institutions, churches and Dallas’ Half Price Books Records Magazines stores. He says it’s rare to find owners who know the worth of their books. Ask about Aeschylus and nine out of 10 garage-sale hosts would identify him as inventor of the escalator.

Grossblatt’s portrait of Dallas according to books:

East Dallas, including Lakewood: “No. 1. Best libraries and smart, literary people. History-conscious.”

Park Cities: “Mostly ’show-and-tell,’ with occasional treasures. Emphasis on nice bindings. Heavy on self-improvement, diet, instructional sex. I once had a Highland Park man ask me to buy him 5,000 books at 50 cents each, content irrelevant. But they had to look good. Books as wallpaper.”

North Dallas: “Used to be schlock but improving quickly. Out-of-staters bringinggood books. Rich longtimers beginning tobuy good books. I don’t know if Dallas cansupport two antiquarian bookstores. We’llhave to see.”

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