The Last Book Sale: An Era Ends for an Author, a Town, and a Culture

Larry McMurtry's used book store sold off three quarters of its stock at an auction earlier this month: Further proof that print is dying? Or a hopeful passing of the torch?

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Larry McMurtry's hometown of Archer City, Texas (pop. 1834), the basis of his 1966 novel The Last Picture Show and setting of the book's film adaptation, has become a pilgrimage site of sorts in recent years, and not just for McMurtry devotees. Going back at least to 1970, McMurtry has carried on a second career as a used and rare bookseller, lately one of the biggest in the country. After three decades operating primarily out of Washington, D.C., McMurtry came home to Archer in the early 2000s, bringing with him an inventory that has topped 400,000 books, including rare gems like a unique, made-to-order erotica collection commissioned by an Oklahoma oilman, featuring contributions from Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin. Two and a half hours from the nearest large city, Fort Worth, McMurtry opened Booked Up, filling five empty storefronts in a town that had been in slow decline at least since the era of Spencer Tracy and Jimmy Stewart, when the little movie theatre on the courthouse square last showed first-run films.

In his second memoir, Books, McMurtry—whose body of work also includes Lonesome Dove and the adapted screenplay for Brokeback Mountain—wrote of fulfilling his "childhood dream of bringing books to Archer City" by creating a book town in Archer. For a precedent, he pointed to the ancient Welsh village Hay-on-Wye, which has redeveloped itself since 1960 into a town of more than thirty bookstores. Archer City was to follow suit, a sort of book-lover's Jerusalem on Texas's dry and dusty plains. This August marked the end of that brief era for Archer, and for McMurtry, who is 76 and has had health problems. In a massive, weekend-long auction dubbed The Last Book Sale, he sold off over 300,000 books, or three-quarters of his stock, closing all but one of his storefronts in the process. It was a notable moment of transition, not just for the town of Archer City, but also for the likewise increasingly peripheral and depleted communities of book-sellers and lovers of the printed word.

In typical McMurtry style, he refused to list the auction books online in advance—scouts and buyers had to come to Archer to pick through the lots and prepare their bids. McMurtry has refused to adjust his habits or his business to the vast changes taking place in book technology and commerce over the past two decades. "Maybe Amazon is just a bubble," he told me a week before the auction. "I wouldn't say it's settled forever. E-books could be just a bubble."

Others, like John Guetschow of used-book behemoth Powell's in Portland, Oregon, would have done things differently. "He could have made a lot more money, and I'm surprised there's nobody in his circle who stopped and did that for him," Guetschow said. "I don't want to criticize the host either—this was a really cool occasion. It just doesn't seem like a way to sell books anymore, or buy them." Guetschow's staff at Powell's purchases 170,000 books per month.

But the Last Book Sale sometimes seemed to take profit as an afterthought. McMurtry emphasized in interviews with me and others that his primary motive was to remove what might become a liability to his heirs, who are unfamiliar with the book trade. "I also kind of like the notion of feeding the cause every once in a while, moving books on," he told me before the sale. "I think that'll be good, to pour some really good stock into the younger generation of dealers. It'll be interesting to see who comes, who's still in the business."

The auction drew out an eccentric collection of perhaps 100 Ludd-curious bookmen and bookwomen from around the country, and many seemed to relish the simplicity of the technology involved: pencil-and-paper auction cards, no wifi, and, of course, the once-mighty codex, stacked, shelved, and boxed all around us like a slumbering army. A typical cross-section of buyers included John Gabriel and Elizabeth Hin of Dallas, private collectors who purchased an edition of A Child's Garden of Verses that Hin recognized from her childhood; Louis Clement, who sells a few shelves of used books out of his pet supply store in Hot Springs, Arkansas ("I have tons of books of Larry's. I don't sell 'em."); Tom Congalton of Between the Covers in Gloucester City, NJ, who lamented that he was the only bona fide rare-book dealer on hand for the auction; and Erin Hahn, 22, and Zachary Stacey, 24, of Austin, who bought a few thousand books with dreams of opening a store featuring "free same-day bike delivery of used books."

Two younger couples aside, however, the buyers did have clear demographic tendencies towards oldness and whiteness. "There isn't the next generation. I hoped there'd be more people my age," said Eddy Nix, 42, of Driftless Books in Viroqua, Wisconsin. "I'm really kind of disappointed, but I know how hard it is to get started. It's for the brave to come down here. Everybody's getting steals, that's for sure." Most buyers expressed satisfaction with the prices they paid. McMurtry, to his credit, pointed out that he had sold nearly everything he'd put up for auction.

Unspoken was the fact that much of Booked Up's stock was effectively worthless, based on online valuation at least, and McMurtry's approach of mixing rare books and shelf-filler into large auction lots meant that most buyers were returning home with a lot of dead weight, commercially speaking. Flatlining demand for printed books and growing online markets for rare books have pushed many dealers out of retail spaces and onto the Internet. There, dealers have no need for browsing stock and can concentrate on a small stable of very valuable books of interest to serious collectors. The interesting but easily attainable books that made up much of Booked Up's stock will continue to decline in value, barring a resurgence of brick-and-mortar used bookstores across the country.

The book trade's struggles were echoed on the streets of Archer, a town small enough that the closing of four storefronts represents a substantial hit to the downtown economy. "There won't be that many tourists coming through town," said Sam Welch, the owner of Longhorn Junktion, a downtown shop, and a lifelong resident of Archer who appeared as an extra in Last Picture Show's 1990 sequel, Texasville. "You gotta think, as an antique store here in town, 'All I am is a distraction from the book stores.'" Welch did, however, counter his pessimism with a pet theory that Archer would soon transition from a book town to an antiques town. "I think we're a strong little town and we'll bounce back," he added.

Rosy speculation was another hallmark of the auction weekend. Among the booksellers, Nix envisioned a new paradigm of bookstore cooperation on the model of his home state's Organic Valley farmer's coop; Eric Papenfuse of Midtown Scholar Bookstore in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania foresaw a rise of regional giant stores; and Noemi deBodisco of op.cit Books in Santa Fe hoped to see "a thousand flowers bloom" as a result of McMurtry's sell-off. These dreams remained far from reality on the dusty streets of Archer, but the mood in town was optimistic, celebratory even, as buyers and spectators enjoyed a rare communal experience in an industry and pastime that lends itself to isolation.

The night before the auction, The Last Picture Show was screened in the historic theatre on the square, and McMurtry made himself available to admirers and fellow bookmen throughout the weekend. In his first and best memoir, Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen, he recounts Susan Sontag telling him that he seemed to be "living in his own little theme park." This has probably never been more accurate than during the Last Book Sale, which may have drawn more fans than serious buyers. The proceedings had the aspect of a living wake, and the constant Last Picture Show references brought to mind the character of Sam the Lion, whose death towards the end of the novel leaves his three businesses on the square—the café, the pool hall, and the picture show—in danger of closing.

Archer has experienced three minor renaissances since the days depicted in Last Picture Show, all with major McMurtry contributions—the production for the original film, then Texasville, and most recently the arrival of the bookstore and the minor cult of personality that McMurtry's residence in town has inspired. Donna "Cookie" Haile, a volunteer for the visitor center in downtown Archer, predicted another mini-boom after McMurtry's death, as tourists would flock to see his home, perhaps his personal library, and what remained of his bookstore. The stock kept aside from the auction was, by general consensus of the buyers, substantial. "He's not out of business," Guetschow said of Booked Up. "He's shed a skin. He's still got a healthy animal underneath."

The mythic aspects of the auction—McMurtry's personal legend, the connection to the famous film, and the proudly anachronistic auction process—likely contributed to the sale's moderate success. "Larry was very wise and intelligent to turn this into an event," Congalton said. "I think the festive atmosphere he's created has helped the auction in a lot of different ways. Certainly the results. It's funny; he sort of bypassed the traditional rare book market and went right to the people."

If the auction crowd is any indication, there are just enough antiquarian kooks and sentimentalists, deep-pocketed dilettantes and true believers to keep the book trade afloat for the foreseeable future. The tribulations of the profession in the Internet era even gave the proceedings a certain antediluvian charm, of the same flavor that attracted audiences to Archer in the first place, back in 1966. Then, McMurtry offered a special wisdom born of coming of age in the middle of nowhere, of how the very loneliness of a life on the periphery can teach a person how to empathize with another solitary individual. It's the same phenomenon that lies at the heart of reading, and of the old, un-wired book culture. It's also something a lot of people worry that we're getting away from in these days of hyper-connectivity—especially the sorts of people who congregated in Archer for the Last Book Sale.

Guetschow took note of McMurtry's coup in offloading tens of thousands of books that might never have sold online. He even indicated that he was thinking of putting together an event-based auction of his own at Powell's, perhaps with similar liturgy-of-the-printed-word observances. "We've got this kind of stock waiting in the wings, and it never seems to get a chance on the stage," Guetschow said. "So doing something like this is inspiring."

The Last Book sale could be viewed as a test of the old way of valuing used books—on the basis of their quality, beauty, interest to the local community, and cumulative contribution to the tactile and cogitative experience of a brick-and-mortar bookstore—versus the newer, Internet-based method of pricing books according to what they'd fetch on the world-wide market. McMurtry's moderate success indicates that the older model can still work in a context where community, continuity, and pride in pre-digital culture are valorized, even ceremonialized. It remains to be seen whether independent booksellers can replicate his efforts without the iconic setting and the involvement of a considerable literary celebrity.

Of course, the argument can also be made that the book trade has always relied on a certain mystique of place and of the printed word, and that the throwback elements of the Last Book Sale merely reflect a subculture—book lovers and serious readers—that was contentedly eccentric and unfashionable long before the birth of e-readers and e-commerce, and will remain so. McMurtry himself insists that the whole ritual, from the film screening to the typewritten flyers to the homemade cookies in the visitor center, was just business as usual for Archer, and for the used book trade. Perhaps unintentionally, he brought to mind the tagline for the film version of Last Picture Show, emblazoned on the movie posters that introduced his vision of small-town Texas life to the world forty years ago: Nothing much has changed...

"I still run the bookshop just like I did 41 years ago when I started it," McMurtry told me. "If I can sell 300,000 books in two days, you could say that it hasn't changed."