“I’ve Written Enough Fiction”

Larry McMurtry says his career as a novelist is in its final chapters. But now that he’s settled into his hometown of Archer City, his life as a bookseller is just getting interesting.

December 1997By Comments

Larry McMurtry is walking the streets of Archer City, keys in hand, unlocking doors to his bookstores around the town square. It’s a crisp morning in October, and McMurtry—wearing a navy wool sweater, jeans, running shoes, a wool scarf loosely draped around his neck, and black-rimmed glasses—looks every bit the resident bookworm, not the famous writer, millionaire, and Hollywood celebrity. Indeed, McMurtry of late spends more time selling books than writing them. The bookstore he and his sister Sue Deen started in a former Ford dealership here—first they called it the Blue Pig, then Booked Up—has spilled into three other buildings downtown. The dusty ranch town McMurtry lamented as utterly “bookless” when he was growing up is now one of the most bookish burgs in America.

Not all the folks in Archer City—about 25 miles from Wichita Falls—are happy to see McMurtry come back and buy up pieces of his hometown. Some still haven’t forgotten or forgiven the gloomy portrayal of their town in the book and the movie The Last Picture Show, McMurtry’s semiautobiographical story about small-town love and loss that was filmed here. Or they grumble that the downtown stores are full of old books instead of things they really need and that Archer City is turning into a tourist town—“McMurtryville.” But many others have welcomed McMurtry back as a benefactor who has put Archer City on the map—once in the books he wrote and now in the books he sells. With more than 100,000 volumes, Booked Up is already one of the largest rare-and-used-book stores in Texas. And Archer City, a single—Dairy Queen community (population: 1,800) built around a 106-year-old sandstone courthouse, is becoming known as an international “book town.” Out-of-state license plates are a common sight in the parking spaces in front of Booked Up’s redbrick main store. Booklovers have come from as far away as Australia.

That McMurtry, 61, has returned to build a business and a life in a town he fled as a young man is ironic but not entirely surprising. He has long admitted to conflicting feelings about his hometown and state, critical of them yet attracted to them; an insider with an outsider’s distance. And his priorities, his approach to work, and his life have changed markedly in the past ten years, a span that began in the wake of the Pulitzer prize—winning Lonesome Dove’s remarkable success in 1985. The 1989 hit television miniseries of the book made McMurtry famous, and his two main characters, the crusty Texas Rangers Augustus McCrae and Captain Woodrow F. Call, pop-western icons. In 1989 he also bought a house in Archer City. After undergoing quadruple-bypass surgery in December 1991, McMurtry went into a depression and couldn’t work for a while, even at his beloved bookstores. He took on a collaborator, Diana Ossana. And after years of bouncing between Washington, D.C., Hollywood, Archer City, and Tucson, Arizona, McMurtry settled, seemingly for good, in his hometown, where he’s closer to his family—especially his seven-year-old grandson, Curtis, whom he adores—and his bookstores. Now he’s talking about another transformation. “I have one more novel I’d like to write,” he says. “I’ve written enough fiction.” The last novel will probably be the final volume of the Archer City trilogy (following The Last Picture Show and Texasville), the story of the life of one man’s hometown.

NOT ENOUGH WAS HAPPENING IN THIS TOWN—we were losing ground to Wichita Falls,” McMurtry says as he gives me a tour of his book empire. “So as the little local merchants folded their tents, we started buying up buildings.” In a rare interview that starts in his bookshop and continues at his house, McMurtry doesn’t try to discourage me from writing about him, as he’s been known to do in interviews in the past. But he would clearly rather talk about books and the shop than himself. He’s a complex person of many contradictions: intense yet reserved, candid one minute and private the next, settled yet restless. He can be as “indifferent as a butter churn,” as his childhood friend Ceil Cleveland once described him, and yet polite, caring, and generous. He has a wry sense of humor—“I call this the hell room where lesser art books go to die,” he says, showing me a room crammed with books yet to be sorted and organized. A writer with a huge loyal following and unusual celebrity, he would rather spend an evening at home in his library than on the literary dinner-party circuit. His family says he has mellowed a lot since his heart surgery. “He’s pretty calm now,” his sister Sue Deen says. “He seems to like it here and seems more settled now than he has been for a long time.”

McMurtry has actually been moving back to Archer City for years—a step at a time. In 1980, while living in Washington, he moved his prized book collection to his family’s ranch house at Idiot Ridge, a windswept knoll outside town. Then he and Deen opened the Blue Pig in 1987. Two years later he bought the largest of Archer City’s three mansions, a three-story Prairie-style yellow-brick house built in 1928 that was formerly a country club. (He grew up in a frame house just down the street.) Lined with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves stocked with McMurtry’s personal collection of 15,000 to 20,000 books, the house is elegant but simple. The main house has large rooms, high ceilings, white walls, original hardwood floors, a magnificent oak stairway, and an unusual glass-top table built of bones. Recently McMurtry transformed the attic into a children’s library for his grandson and his sisters’ children. Out back is a carriage house that he turned into a two-level library, where he does much of his research.

That passion for books—collecting them, selling them, and writing them—took root early. While teaching English at Rice University in Houston in the mid-sixties, McMurtry managed a shop called the Bookman and scouted for books for dealers. After he moved to the Washington, D.C., area in 1969, he opened a serious rare-book shop, the first Booked Up, in a one-room, one-story building in affluent Georgetown. A couple of years later, he moved to a second Georgetown location, above which he kept a small apartment. During his time in Washington he also opened and closed bookstores in Dallas and Houston. Since opening the Blue Pig, he has been consolidating his holdings in Archer City and quietly building up stock. He sometimes handles the big purchases, and like the rodeo cowboy turned antique dealer in his novel Cadillac Jack, he loves the hunt for good buys. When he lived in Washington, he would sometimes take a bedroll and camp out all night to be the first in line at a book sale. McMurtry has whittled down the Washington shop—which he recently moved again to a location across the street—to four thousand or five thousand books, making it more of a specialty rare-book shop. Marcia Carter, McMurtry’s longtime partner in the Georgetown store, says she sent about four hundred boxes of books from the shop to Archer City. “It’s wonderful what he’s doing there,” Carter says. “He thinks on a Texas scale.”

McMurtry also owns a bookstore in Tucson, but he says he’ll likely sell that in a few years to focus on the bookshops in his hometown and in Georgetown. Most of the stock in Archer City came from books McMurtry bought from bookstores in urban areas that couldn’t afford the expensive real estate and sold out. Fragments of fifteen to twenty bookshops—including several from New York City— now reside in Archer City. In January 30,000 more books that McMurtry bought from a bookseller in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, are arriving, and he’s got a lead on another big load of books from a shop in Arizona. “Buying is like breath to a bookseller,” McMurtry says.

Archer City is not as unlikely a setting for a book town as it may first seem. Other international book towns are also out in the middle of nowhere—booklovers and dealers are an eccentric lot, and they will travel thousands of miles to find good buys. The most famous book town, Hay-on-Wye in Wales, a village of only 1,200 residents, has more than thirty bookstores and holds a prestigious annual literary festival. Montolieu, in southern France, was a dying industrial town until Michel Braibant, a master bookbinder, revitalized the town as a mecca for graphic arts and books. The best-known book town in the United States is Stillwater, Minnesota, which boasts several large antiquarian bookstores and historic inns. McMurtry says he would eventually like to turn one of his buildings downtown into a collective to bring other booksellers to town.

McMurtry’s shop and his name have already attracted more visitors to Archer City. Unfortunately there’s not much to make them stay after browsing for books. The Texasville Cafe, where tourists and townsfolk once gathered to drink coffee and eat fried catfish, is for sale. The old Royal Theater, immortalized in The Last Picture Show, is a crumbling pile of rocks anchoring one end of Main Street. McMurtry is helping with a drive to raise $2 million to transform the small theater into a 14,000-square-foot multipurpose complex for hosting productions by the town’s Picture Show Players community theater group as well as drama workshops, film festivals, literary readings, and art and photography exhibits. McMurtry lets the theater troupe and the Royal renovation group operate out of one of his buildings.

Abby Abernathy, a 35-year-old actor and producer who heads the Royal Theater Fund, bought the theater in 1986 after it had been condemned. McMurtry didn’t want to be involved with early plans to renovate the theater into a movie house. “He said it was a heinous idea,” Abernathy remembers. “He said, ‘Why spend your money trying to recreate something you can’t recreate?’” McMurtry got interested, though, when the project broadened. Abernathy, who also renovated Archer City’s historic hotel, the Spur, says that it has taken longer to get grant money than anticipated and that plans have been scaled back from the 20,000 square feet originally envisioned. But Abernathy, whose father was one of those opposed to the filming of The Last Picture Show in Archer City 27 years ago, vows the Royal will rise from the rubble, perhaps by the end of next year.

All of this is irrelevant to some people in Archer City, who point out that the town doesn’t even have a dry goods store downtown anymore or a full-time physician or a hospital. Most of the big supporters of the Royal Theater renovation aren’t from Archer City. But the town has felt the ups and downs of farming, ranching, and the oil patch for so long that many residents see the book town as their best shot at rejuvenation. “Larry is building us a mountain,” says Tom O’Neil, a local banker and the head of the chamber of commerce, which sits in a small building that looks like a metal storage shed next to one of Booked Up’s stores. “That in itself is going to attract more incremental business.”

OF COURSE, MCMURTRY DIDN’T RETURN to revitalize Archer City. He came back to devote himself to his passion: books. Although this is where his people are from, the move must have been an unsettling one. In one of the essays in his 1968 collection In a Narrow Grave, McMurtry writes about his “deep ambivalence” about Texas and his “contradiction of attractions” about his heritage: “I am critical of the past, yet apparently attracted to it.” Though McMurtry has said he was only “nominally a cowboy” and never liked cattle much himself, his grandfather, father, and uncles ranched thousands of acres in the area.

The modern McMurtrys have avoided the hard-core ranching life, though his sisters Deen (who got out of the book business four years ago) and Judy McLemore have in the past three years started a small cow-calf outfit. Judy also runs the town’s title company. Larry’s brother, Charlie, is a lecturer in the English department at Angelo State University, in San Angelo. His mother lives in Wichita Falls, and his son, singer-songwriter James McMurtry, lives in Austin with his wife, Elena (Larry and Jo Ballard, James’s mother, divorced in 1966). McMurtry tries to visit James’ son, Curtis, regularly. He had to dash out of town to buy Curtis a birthday present the day I visited. One of the staff suggested that he might want to look for something in the F.A.O. Schwarz catalog that had just arrived in the mail from the big New York toy store. No, McMurtry said, he had to drive to Wichita Falls because his grandson had to have a high-tech ray gun.

McMurtry’s extended family includes Ossana, who has homes in Tucson and Archer City. The two met in 1985 and became friends. Ossana, who had done some writing and worked as a legal assistant, took McMurtry into her Tucson home several months after his heart surgery to help him recuperate. While recovering he wrote Streets of Laredo, which Ossana helped edit. He dedicated the book to her and her daughter Sara. They became collaborators, next working on a screenplay of Pretty Boy Floyd, which they sold to Warner Bros. and expanded into a book, published in 1994. This year they published Zeke and Ned together. Some people have wondered whether they have a romantic relationship, but both have insisted they’re just close friends. They see each other frequently and both presided over the opening of the Texas Book Festival in Austin in early November.

“WORKING IN RARE BOOKS AND ANTIQUARIAN books is a progressive thing,” McMurtry says. “You don’t always get better as a writer—you get old, you get tired, you exhaust an original gift. But in books you’re dealing in knowledge. The older you get, the better you get. It’s almost the opposite of being a writer.” McMurtry says he’s winding down as a writer of fiction. Comanche Moon, his fourth and final novel about Lonesome Dove’s Gus and Call (the book takes them through their prime adulthood), came out last month from his longtime publisher, Simon and Schuster. (His two other novels about Gus and Call were 1993’s Streets of Laredo and 1995’s Dead Man’s Walk.) “I got very tired of it,” he says, picking up a prepublication copy of Comanche Moon. “Four is really stretching it.” But, he adds, “I think it works.” McMurtry reportedly received a multiyear contract of at least $10 million from Simon and Schuster for his last four books. He won’t comment on that, but says that Comanche Moon was the final one in that group and that he’s not seeking another multiyear contract. It’s also questionable whether Comanche Moon will be made into a television miniseries, as were the other three Gus-and-Call novels. “It’s not encouraging at the moment,” he says. “The miniseries is getting harder and harder to get going. The networks are getting more and more nervous about it.” Whether he’ll do much more work with Hollywood is “unpredictable,” McMurtry says, adding that he continues to be interested in good projects.

McMurtry is more interested these days in writing nonfiction and essays, a literary form he seized early in his career with In a Narrow Grave. Its essay on Southwestern literature took the first hard look at the literary contributions of the then-holy trinity of Texas letters J. Frank Dobie, Walter Prescott Webb, and Roy Bedichek and stirred up a hornet’s nest of debate about the state of Texas letters. Another collection of essays, Film Flam (1987), took an entertaining look at his experiences with Hollywood. He has continued to write essays and reviews for publications like the New Republic, the New York Times, and American Film. The New York Review of Books in October ran an essay he wrote about Southwestern historian Angie Debo. His next project will likely be a short biography about the Sioux warrior Crazy Horse for a new series to be published by Viking Penguin Books.

BACK AT THE MAIN BOOKSTORE ON SOUTH Center Street, McMurtry perches on a stepladder in a cavernous room—the former garage of the old Ford dealership—filled with rows and rows of bookcases. He scribbles prices in the books without consulting a price guide. “I’ve been doing this for thirty years,” he says, “and there aren’t many books that I haven’t seen before.” The workers share a clear camaraderie; McMurtry jokes with his three young staffers and chats with several out-of-state dealers who are buying many boxes of books. A newly adopted shop cat, a calico named Colette (after the French writer), darts about. In the front room glass cases hold rare first editions, books with ornate covers, and unusual, expensive items—such as a batch of letters from poet Ezra Pound ($2,500). Browsers can spend hours going through the buildings, looking at books on everything from art to Continental literature (many in their original languages) to poetry—one of Booked Up’s buildings has a whole room of poetry, mostly acquired from one poetry bookstore in New York.

McMurtry isn’t just indulging his passion for books—he’s making a profit. He says that in recent years Booked Up’s sales have doubled annually. McMurtry started advertising the store in international antiquarian book publications for the first time last December and expects sales to triple this year. The average book sells for $20 to $50, but some are less than $10. The staff put together a small bookcase behind the front desk filled with McMurtry’s books, but he says he doesn’t like to sell his own books himself. First editions of his books, especially early ones, have become collectible in recent years, fetching hundreds of dollars. “They’re expensive,” he says.

In another touch of irony, one of the most expensive books in the shop is by J. Frank Dobie, the Texas writer McMurtry whiplashed as a provincial folklorist many years ago. A signed, limited edition of Dobie’s The Mustangs sells for $4,000. Texana is popular at the store, but McMurtry says “it doesn’t excite me much unless it’s really good.”

McMurtry has a story for just about every book. He’ll pick up a copy and talk about the author, where he bought the book and from whom, and why it’s in his shop. He gets rid of a lot of books that aren’t collectible, sending them to prop shops in Hollywood or secondhand bookstores like Half Price Books. I couldn’t pass up a first edition of America and Alfred Stieglitz, a collection of essays about the photographer and champion of modern art that had a signed note inside from artist Georgia O’Keeffe, who was married to Stieglitz. O’Keeffe wrote the note on a bookplate belonging to one Miles Hart. Hart, McMurtry explains, was a Glen Rose lawyer who was adept at getting writers and others to correspond with him. When McMurtry bought Hart’s library, he also acquired some letters from poet Robert Graves. “It’s always entertaining because there are little surprises,” he says. “You never know what you’ll find.”

McMurtry has been in the book business so long that he’s seen books that he owned while going to school at Rice, with his signature inside, turn up in a load of books he’s bought. Sometimes copies of his own books that he inscribed and gave to someone have come back to the shop. “Larry will say, ‘Well so-and-so must have gotten divorced because one of them had to sell their books,’” Deen says with a laugh. “Larry has always said that books go the full circle.”

And so, it seems, has he.

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