Thursday, July 7, 2022 Jul 7, 2022
81° F Dallas, TX

Larry McMurtry Sells Out

The Pulitzer Prize-winning author finally gets the Archer City he always dreamed of—but at great cost.
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All Larry McMurtry ever wanted was for Archer City, Texas, to become a book town. For one weekend, he finally got his wish. photography by Brandon Thibodeaux

When Larry McMurtry began moving his vast book collection from Washington, D.C., to North Texas back in the 1980s, sometimes piling books into the trunk and backseat of his Cadillac, he had a grand vision. He imagined his hometown, Archer City, Texas, might one day transform into a book town, something similar to Hay-on-Wye, a small town in Wales filled with dozens of independent bookstores, a bibliophile’s paradise. Long an oil and ranching hamlet on the dry-roasted plains south of Wichita Falls, Archer City had four large storefronts, shuttered car dealerships, that McMurtry could buy cheap. So he did, and he filled each huge space with towering bookshelves and stuffed it with old volumes of all sorts of obscure texts.

A few people came. There were book collectors, retirees out on day trips, a trickle of Lonesome Dove fans. Various schools held classes in town, often convening at the Spur Hotel, a historic inn renovated not long after McMurtry opened his bookstores. But most of the people in town never cared much about the bookstores. They never even set foot in one of the four buildings situated around the town square and the old Gothic courthouse. Archer City never got any book-themed restaurants, unless you count the Dairy Queen with the McMurtry book jackets framed on the wall.

So this summer, McMurtry, now 76 and not wanting to burden his heirs with a collection of about 450,000 books, announced he would hold an auction of approximately 300,000 volumes, and he would close three of the four Booked Up storefronts. He would handpick 101 distinct books to auction off individually, and the rest would be sold in lots of 150 to 200 books. He called it The Last Book Sale, an allusion to his novel (and subsequent movie, The Last Picture Show), which McMurtry himself has called a “spiteful” book intended to “lance some of the poisons of small-town life.” McMurtry, who has written three books about book collecting, said his was the largest single live sale of books he could recall. And in an age of online auctions, he suspected it would likely be the last sale this big in history.

For three days, in the heat of August, Archer City was transformed. Cars lined the town square. All the hotel rooms in town were booked months in advance. There were seven restaurants open at the same time, more than anyone in town could remember. The cafe across from the hotel usually closes at 2 pm but stayed open until 9 during the weekend of the sale.

Holding court near the front of the one store he isn’t closing, McMurtry explained that this was more people than he’d ever seen in Archer City. Norma Faye Kesey, the widow of author Ken Kesey who is now married to McMurtry, sat close to him. She was there when he learned that Booked Up No. 4 was completely sold off. “Does anyone know how much it made?” he wondered aloud.

The sale brought out book fans and writers from far and wide. There were academics, journalists, and at least two documentary crews. Some people came out just to watch the spectacle. There were a few people hoping to build giant bookstores of their own in Arkansas and Wisconsin. Because the hotels were booked and the nearest available room was 25 miles north, at least one McMurtry fan slept in a car near the Baptist church.

Rare book collectors drove minivans and pulled trailers from all over the country. It’s a community that rarely meets in person, so there was a lot of fervent hand shaking and plenty of gossip exchanged. They discussed which art museums might actually be full of forgeries, which collectors might have been fooled over the years. They went through aisle after aisle of the towering shelves, flipping through some of the stranger, more obscure books ever printed in English.

The most discussed item of the weekend was a thick collection of cowboy erotica reportedly commissioned by a wealthy old oilman with an appetite for the tawdry. Though there are no bylines on the stories, there were whispers that famous writers such as Henry Miller may be among the contributors. When the bidding was finally done, it sold for just under $3,000.

Meanwhile, at the American Legion Hall, the only bar in town, the roughnecks, the ranchers, and the volunteer firefighters sipping $2 well drinks went about their business as usual. They still didn’t care much about the bookstore. Hank Williams Jr. moaned from the jukebox, and people hardly seemed to notice all the strangers a few hundred yards away. One old cowboy told stories about cooking beans for the McMurtry family decades ago, and he remembered them paying well. When a news report about the book sale came on the muted television in the corner of the bar, none of the locals even looked up to watch it.

Eventually, the sun would set on the stores, and the restaurants would all go back to their regular hours. Fans and collectors would all head home, volumes of found literature in tow. Soon everything in Archer City would revert to the way it was the week before the sale. Still, the weekend was a dream come true. Even if it was only for two days—and it meant selling most of his collection—Larry McMurtry finally had his book town.