Los Angeles Times

Book rancher McMurtry rides herd over words

I picked up my rental car on an overcast spring morning. Trucks barreled philosophically, as far from one coast as the other, and streamlined totem poles lifted heavenward the names of Shell and Sizzler.

"There are times when one just feels like driving," Larry McMurtry wrote in his essay collection, In a Narrow Grave. And one of them is after getting off an airplane. The world, lately glimpsed from afar, unattainable, is all around you. Your head spins with possibility and the novelties of freedom: new car, new roads, new landscapes.

I skirted Fort Worth and headed north toward McMurtry's hometown. On the literary map, Archer City holds a unique position, for it is both setting and repository. It is the town that McMurtry has mercilessly depicted in a trilogy of novels, beginning with The Last Picture Show, and the home he has returned to with a quarter of a million of the books he has amassed in his second career as an antiquarian bookseller. People who come looking for Duane and Jacy are rewarded instead with possibly the finest second-hand bookstore in the United States. It is like going to Tolstoy's Yasnaya Polyana and finding Hay-on-Wye.

It was that small Welsh town brimming with bookstores, that McMurtry had in mind when he returned to Archer City in the early '90s. Then he had mainly geography working against him, situated as he was on a road to nowhere in the middle of the country. Today, with the advances in e-commerce, he has technology, a development which only strengthens his bond to his ancestors, and many of his literary creations. In his essay/memoir Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen, he draws a parallel between his own passion, book collecting, and ranching.

"Unfit for ranch work because of my indifference to cattle -- if sent to fetch a particular animal I usually came back with the wrong one -- I went instead into the antiquarian book trade, becoming, in effect, a book rancher, herding books into larger and larger ranches (I now have filled a whole town with them, my equivalent of the King Ranch). I couldn't find the right cow, but I could find the right book, extricating them from the once dense thickets of America's antiquarian bookshops."

The road sped through fields of fresh spring grass. Gradually the pastures between houses shrank to yards, which in turn gave way to a block of storefronts: forlorn, one-story affairs of brick and glass. A stately stone courthouse rose from the square opposite, and at the intersection of Center and Main a blinking red light hung like a worn literary device.

On Center Street, joining the lineup of usual suspects -- cafe, florist, general store -- was Booked Up Inc. No. 3. Building No. 1 occupied a low, tan-brick structure in the next block. I opened the door, walked past tables handsomely set with hardbacks and asked at the counter if Larry McMurtry were in.

"He's not here," the young woman said. "He left for L.A. this morning."

I told her that I'd come all the way from Florida, where I'd written to him of my visit.

"He's not the most organized person," she said.

An old campaign poster ran along the top of the back wall: "In your heart you know he's right -- vote for Barry Goldwater." Under it a T-shirt read: "A woman's love is like the morning dew. It's just as apt to fall on a horse turd as it is on a rose -- Leaving Cheyenne." More souvenirs congregated in a corner -- mugs, caps, CDs (of songwriter son, James) -- and made understandable Susan Sontag's remark, uttered during a visit, that McMurtry was living inside his own theme park.

The other walls were padded with books. There was the refined, soothing orderliness that row upon row of leathery volumes produce, but also a keen, stately defiance on the main street of a dusty town on the Texas plains.

The prices were high -- rare books and first editions in the front -- but back in the adjoining annex they dropped encouragingly.

That famous red roof

The road out of town ran flat and straight. I had never approached a Dairy Queen with a feeling of reverence before, but this was the most glorified, most literarily significant Dairy Queen in the world. For it was here that McMurtry got the idea for the book that would eventually feature the famous red-roofed restaurant on its cover and in its title. It was a hot summer morning in 1980; he was sipping a lime Dr Pepper and reading Walter Benjamin, a German literary critic. The book was Illuminations, and the essay that caught his interest was "The Storyteller," for it addressed, in McMurtry's words, "the growing obsolescence of what might be called practical memory and the consequent diminution of the power of oral narrative in our 20th century lives" -- two of the recurring themes of his memoir.

When I arrived, around 6:30, two women of the village were licking soft ice cream cones. They were plumpish with vertical hair that looked as if it would crack if you touched it. I immediately ordered a lime Dr Pepper and was taken aback when the teen in his blue "Team DQ" cap had to hunt around for limes.

"You do make them, don't you?"

"Oh, yeah," said a young woman, coming to his rescue. "We also make cherry limeade. That's good, too." There seemed no point in explaining its literary inferiority.

Then I ordered a cheeseburger, though I was tempted by the chicken fried steak sandwich.

"Only a rank degenerate would drive 1,500 miles across Texas without eating a chicken fried steak," McMurtry wrote in In a Narrow Grave. But I hadn't driven 500 miles yet, and I imagined that trying the delicacy swathed in a soft bun would be akin to eating escargots buried in a baguette. (Which may explain why there is no "McMurtry Special" of lime Dr Pepper and chicken fried steak sandwich.)

The walls, befitting the establishment's cultural importance, were decorated with framed covers of McMurtry novels and stories from the local paper about the filming of Texasville.

The next day, the town's red light blinked with the steady regularity of a healthy heart. I turned left and entered bookstore No. 4. I was the first customer of the day, alone in a large roomful of books.

Unlike in the main store, there were no display tables, no attempt to show that this was anything other than a gutted shop whose bright confines had rudely been shadowed with shelves.

In travel writing there is always a thin line between work and pleasure -- sleeping in hotels, eating in restaurants, talking to interesting people -- but as I scanned the shelves, the line seemed to dissolve and disappear altogether when I got to the Travel section. In looking to add to my library I was, inevitably, researching my story; the selfish act of acquisition merged, indistinguishably, with the only slightly more reputable one of reporting.

What impressed, after you had accustomed yourself to the arranging anarchy, was not just the scope but the quality. The number of books you wanted far exceeded the number you could carry, or perhaps even house. And even the ones that didn't interest you personally had a clear intrinsic value, an air of import, a reason to be here. There was almost nothing in that category that Charles Lamb dubbed "biblia abiblia" -- "books which are no books."

The layered beauty of McMurtry's store is that it is a world of books created by a prolific writer of books who happens to be one of the greatest readers of books. This is a man who takes Walter Benjamin to the Dairy Queen. In the subsequent book, an entire chapter is titled "Reading," and begins with the story of the cousin who gave him 19 "common boys' books of the twenties and thirties" when he was 6. That started him on a habit that was not stilled until 1991, when he underwent heart surgery and woke up to find that he no longer had any interest in reading. A few pages later he writes: "I am only now [1998] regaining my velocity — the ability to read several books more or less at the same time, at a fast clip." By the end, he confesses: "In my seventh decade I feel a new haste, not to write, but to read." Sad news for his readers; inspiration for his customers.

A blissful pursuit

After an hour I headed out looking like a freshman with a long night of homework ahead. On Center Street there was an occasional clash as stetsoned rancher passed bespectacled bibliophile. Boots vs. loafers, dirt vs. dust.

After some time in Nos. 2 and 3, I wandered down to No. 1. (Signs in all the buildings direct customers to the main store, the only one with a cash register.) The young assistant from the day before had been replaced by an older woman with a rugged face and a sharp but pleasant manner. I had heard that McMurtry's sister worked in the store, and I asked if she were Sue McMurtry.

She confirmed that she was, and after some pleasantries said, "Two of us liked horses and two of us didn't. He and my sister didn't. She's got the abstract company on the square."

I asked about him. "He writes in the morning, and then comes in around 11. He goes home for lunch and then comes back and stays till 5. He unpacks about 20 boxes a day. That's what he loves doing."

Before leaving town I drove over to have a look at where McMurtry lived.

The house sat at the end of the street, a handsome, rambling mass of tan brick rising three stories to a green tile roof. It had been, I knew from the Dairy Queen memoir, the house of a rich oil man who had lost his only child in an oil field accident and taken solace in books. McMurtry writes of how, as a boy, he would look across the hay field late at night and see the light burning in the man's second floor study. McMurtry explains the scene simply: "Mr. Taylor and I were the only two people in Archer City who liked to read all night."

I took in the windows of the neighboring houses and wondered if there was anyone watching the survivor.

If you go

Getting there

Archer City is about a 2 1/2-hour drive from the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport.

Staying there

There are two options: the Lonesome Dove Inn on Main Street (P.O. Box 88, Archer City, TX 76351; 940-574-2700; rates range from $65 to $135) and the Spur Hotel on Center Street (P.O. Box 1207, Archer City, TX 76351; 940-574-2501, rates range from $75 to $82.50).

Dining there

The Dairy Queen. Try the lime Dr Pepper.

Book hunting

Booked Up, 216 S. Center St., is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays.


Contact Booked Up, 216 S. Center St., Archer City, TX 76351; 940-574-2511.

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