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.,