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?
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.