Larry McMurtry is a genuine legend in the Lone Star state. Born and educated here (Rice University, the University of North Texas), he went on to a very successful career as a novelist, essayist, bookseller and screenwriter whose work is predominantly set in either the old West or in contemporary Texas. He is the author of twenty-nine novels, including Terms of Endearment (1975) and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Lonesome Dove (1985), a historical saga that follows ex-Texas Rangers as they drive their cattle from the Rio Grande to a new home in the frontier of Montana. He also co-wrote the adapted screenplay for Brokeback Mountain. Lonesome Dove was adapted into a television miniseries and both the films of Terms of Endearment and Brokeback Mountain won Academy Awards.
McMurtry’s bookstore, Booked Up, began over thirty years ago in Washington, D.C. and is now located in the Texas panhandle, just two hours northwest of DFW Airport in his hometown of Archer City, Texas. Booked Up carries between 150,000 and 200,000 fine and scholarly books. All stock has been purchased and shelved over the last four decades by owner and founder Larry McMurtry.
Having heard about McMurty and his bookstore for decades, we decided that it was at last time to visit. So over Labor Day weekend 2014 we drove to Archer City, a town of little more than 1,800 souls, located almost exactly 2 hours away from our home in Fort Worth. It was a very pleasant drive through Texas scrub country, up what’s known as Jacksboro Highway, since the town of Jackboro – county seat of Jack County – lies some 70 miles due northwest of Fort Worth. From there it’s another 45 minutes to Archer City, basically in the Panhandle of Texas.
In August 2012 McMurtry hosted a huge sale of his 300,000+ books in Archer City, allowing him to downsize his holdings from four buildings to two. The two remaining book stores are across the street from each other: the principal shop, Book Up No. 1, on the E side of the street, contains the bulk of his remaining inventory. Booked Up No. 2, on the W side, contains the remnants of the 2012 sale – books there are all available for $5 or less!
We thoroughly enjoyed our visit, browsing through the 1,000’s and 1,000’s of volumes in room after room and row after row of maybe 12-ft high book shelves. Though large stretches of shelves are categorized only as “general selection,” elsewhere books are ordered in large subject groupings, including things like Civil War, Texana, Western fiction, hunting, fishing, military history, etc., etc. I found myself spell-bound by a large double-volume called “Pictorial History of the Civil War,” and ended spending way too much time browsing through them.
As I was doing so, a strangely familiar, tall girl wearing sunglasses, a doo-rag and a big, smile walked past my chair, looking right down at me! Though she was apparently intending to be incognito, it was immediately clear who the person was: daughter Claire, down from college at Wichita Falls, some 20 miles north! The (albeit weak) disguise she was wearing immediately evoked memories of my doing the same thing on a trip to Pierre, South Dakota for a summer farm visit in the 1990’s. The girls were young and I wanted to surprise them. Marge was of course in on the ruse, and my partner in crime. I was wearing some (also weak) disguise items – a multi-colored shirt, baseball cap and sunglasses, plus a pillow stuffed inside my shirt! – and after my plane arrival, father-in-law John picked me up and took me to the mall where the girls were shopping with their mother. I walked in and out and around them until they finally recognized me! Quote Claire to her mom at the time: “I think that guy is DAD!,” at which point I burst out laughing, and the jig was up! So today’s attempt by Claire to “get by me” was a déjà vu of that occasion – and the much more famous (in our family) occasion of my surprising brother Chris in California at a Western Sizzlin’ steakhouse. But that’s another story…
Anyway, Claire was here because Marge had notified her by text on the ride to Archer City, without telling me! So, after viewing the Golden Globe and Oscar statuettes McMurtry had won in 2005 for his co-writing the screenplay for Brokeback Mountain, and paying for our book selections ($90 worth), we departed Booked Up No. 1. As per the recommendation of our host Jan at the bookstore, we headed to the Lucky Dollar Café five blocks down the street. That turned out to be the best choice we could have made of those available in town – 1) the local café, Murn’s was closed, 2) Dairy Queen I couldn’t stand, so what was left was 3) Lucky’s, which, though it was essentially a service station, had a lovely, large dining area and full menu of subs, burgers and salads, plus the bonus of hard ice cream for dessert! There we had a lovely, long family visit with the special bonus of Claire being there.
In the waning stages of the meal, Marge couldn’t resist engaging a pair of older local ladies having their supper, opening the conversation with the tongue-in-cheek: “Which one of you two is married to Larry McMurtry?” The answer shot back swiftly from one: “I’d rather be married to a rattlesnake!” and quickly went south from there! Turns out, their review of his presence and influence in the community was actually mixed. While they admitted he did a lot to put Archer City on the map, he personally lived in a big “mansion” on the edge of town, and was often haughty, demanding or aloof to locals. In fairness, the two ladies didn’t strike either Marge or me as “readers” or book people, and some of their complaints sounded petty. Still, it was interesting to uncover a strain of dissent to the presence of Larry McMurtry in the community.
After our goodbyes to Claire – and after considering but ultimately declining the very kind offer from her cousin and our niece, Crystal Fisher Lindsey, to come up to Wichita Falls that evening for BBQ brisket – we were headed home to Fort Worth. A very fun and interesting day – and another (Texas) bucket list item crossed off!