Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Larry McMurtry and The Last Bookstore

That August Saturday was fine and hot and The Husband and I were in a mood to roam, so when we heard that Larry McMurtry was closing some of his used bookstores in Archer City – he has four there – we decided to go out and see what was going on. After all, it was a lovely day and it was only a two and a half hour drive out there.
Archer City is on the eastern edge of West Texas, that fabled land of cactus and dust and unhindered miles of sky. Archer City is small – just a couple of thousand people – and was the model for Anarene in the book/movie THE LAST PICTURE SHOW. And yet, thanks to Mr. McMurtry, it is also a mecca for bibliophiles the world over, with four enormous used bookstores. And I do mean enormous. I didn’t have an idea of how much so until we actually got there.
The bookstores are scattered around the low, weathered cluster of buildings that is Anarene’s downtown. There is also a disproportionate number of antique stores, too – five, as I recall, which I look forward to exploring on another trip.
 Unimaginatively named #1, #2, #3 and #4, the bookstores are jammed into old buildings that originally had vastly different uses but which were turned into book heavens by the liberal applications of ten feet tall white painted shelves placed in close ranks, with shelves jammed as full as possible.
#s 2, 3, and 4 are being closed and the contents auctioned off. The Husband and I sat and watched the auction for a while. Watch was all we could do, as we were not – thank Heavens! – registered bidders. All the books were sold in lots, a lot being a floor to ceiling bookcase, which means lots of books. LOTS of books.
Have I said we live in a house with three overflowing libraries? We don’t need any more books.
We poked around for a while, astonished at what was there. For example, a five inch thick octavo-sized hardback of Books Printed In the English Language, 1938-1943. There were several of them, in various and not necessarily sequential years. The entire oeuvre of Gore Vidal. Texts and technical books on subjects ranging from maintenance of water flora to aerodynamics, none of which was less than twenty-five years old. Unremembered fiction of all genres going back at least a hundred years. And Heaven only knows what else. Of course you couldn’t pull a book from a lot to buy, but I did peek into a couple of them. Amazing.
Since I’m supposed to keep this about writers and writing, perhaps I should say something about how I felt while looking at all those books. Some, of course, were by names from many eras that are instantly recognizable. More, though, were by people that I’ve never heard of, and may have not been very well known in their own time. Some didn’t even have author’s names attached.
It makes you think, doesn’t it? How many people have gone through the agony – and the ecstasy – of writing and publishing a book, only to have their name fade from popular memory? Was it worth it to them? Were they successes in their day, or almost as unknown then as now?
But – to look at it from another viewpoint, famous or obscure they might have been, but their words, their ideas, will live forever – or as long as paper and ink can survive. That’s not too shabby, and it’s all because of used bookstores and libraries all over the world.
As far as Archer City is concerned, store #1 will remain open for the foreseeable future, and it is a treasure trove in spite of the unprepossessing building with the sagging and water-stained ceiling. There is an air conditioned ‘showcase’ room, where the valuable books are kept, and behind that is another enormous building simply bursting with tall, stuffed bookshelves.
The fact that this particular room was only minimally air conditioned (according to the store manager – I didn’t feel any a/c at all!) and it was 105F outside, I didn’t last long, After a few minutes of looking my eyes glazed over and my brain went into overload. Of course I had headed immediately to the mystery wall – ten feet high, probably fifty feet long and solid with books. I saw a couple of rarities that I would love to have, but since the first one was $65 I put it back. There were ones that were as low as $5, too, but by that time the sweat was running into my eyes and I was starting to feel a little sick. I do not do heat well, unlike The undaunted Husband, who served two summers in Iraq when the average daily temperature was 120F and he wore full pack and armor. I left him happily ferreting away among the history books, went back into the air conditioning and claimed a seat at the reading table.
After a little while of simply breathing and trying to stop sweating, I recovered enough to read a couple of book collectors’ magazines. Really, the prices on some books…! They made that little $65 rarity look positively cheap.
I had been sitting there for a while when this little old man shuffled in and sat down at the next seat at the table, about three feet away from me. I glance up ... and it is LARRY MCMURTRY himself. I am actually barely an arm’s length away from one of the best-known writers in the world – and one of my idols.
I would love to write that we fell into conversation and had a delightful time with him giving me all kinds of information about my own career, but it didn't happen that way. I don't know if he is just old, or sick, or simply exhausted from the multi-week process of the sale, but he sat there like a bump on a log, not looking at anyone except when a customer came up and started chattering to him. Then he would mumble a response and extend a very limp hand for a short shake. 
I didn't speak and he didn't speak and we just sat there until The Husband came out of the back room with an armload of books - just what we need! More books! - and showed them to me. As we were getting read to leave, I couldn't help myself. I introduced The Husband and myself to Mr. McMurtry and told him how much I loved his work. He mumbled something polite and extended a very limp hand for a short shake. 
It was enough – almost.
(Janis Patterson didn't see any of her books in Archer City, but you're all right because you can order them from fine etailers everywhere.)


Kaye George said...

I lived in that area for several years, even served on the grand jury for Archer County, and never saw him. But, according to locals, he never speaks to anyone! And yes, those book stores are hot and expensive. I figured he didn't really want to sell the books. It's still VERY COOL that you sat by him. He HAS written some good stuff!

Stacey said...

Larry McMurtry is my all-time favorite author. I'm sorry to hear that he looked sick or just plain old. But how cool that he sat down next to you! Sounded like an interesting day you had in Archer.

Linda Andrews said...

I would love to have visited the books stores. But the no matter how expensive the books, getting to sit near a writing legend is priceless.

Angelyn said...

My mom and grandmother met him in the early 60s when he owned his first bookstore in the Washington, DC area. His writing was considered very radical at the time--not at all like J. Frank Dobie and the like. Another generation passing.

Maryann Miller said...

Enjoyed reading about your trip to Archer City. I've always wanted to go see those bookstores. Guess I've missed my chance.

Always have enjoyed McMurtry's books and am saddened to hear he is getting a bit frail. Or maybe you were right and he was just tired that day.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Janis,

Such an interesting post! Thanks for sharing your experience with us. I've never been to Texas but so many fine writers come from your area. Like you I love bookstores. What an honor to meet Larry McMurtry!

Kathleen Kaska said...

Hi Janis,

My husband and I toured that bookstore several years ago. I'm glad part of it will remain. I'm sure if I were there in the heat, I'd wilt just like Mr. McMurtry. Glad you introduced yourself. Is the theatre still there? It was pretty dilapidated last time we drove through.
Great post. You brought back a flood of memories.

Morgan Mandel said...

I'm not anywhere near the bookstores, but love reading about such experiences.

And, yes, the great thing about being an author is your words can live on.

Morgan Mandel
Twitter: @MorganMandel

Warren Bull said...

It's great to hear about a surviving bookstore.

Cathy Perkins said...

Wonderful post Janis.

Much as I use and enjoy my Nook, I love used bookstores, too. Wandering around, finding the missing book from a series you loved, randomly picking up one whose cover/title/name catches your eye.

I does make me wonder what it will be like in 20 years. Will Amazon/B&N/Kobo's servers simply grow larger to handle the growing mountain of e-books? No dust, no heat... but not the same.

Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith said...

I loved this post. Thanks for sharing your experience!

Earl Staggs said...

I understand your excitement of simply being there, Susan. Like you, I see old books I've never read by authors I've never heard of, and wonder what their lives and careers were like and whatever happened to them. While so much has changed, some things haven't. We still sit and write as best we can, take pride in having finished it, and hope somebody likes it.