The time comes when a novelist must cease creating new worlds. In his jeans and suspenders, Larry McMurty looks tired–and not just because he is in the middle of an intense and emotional weekend. He says that his memory is failing, much like that of his fellow author Gabriel Garcia Márquez, the Colombian whose works of magical realism include The Autumn of the Patriarch and One Hundred Years of Solitude. “I don’t know if it is as serious as his case,” says the American novelist who wrote the Lonesome Dove series, the first volume of which won him a Pulitzer. “But sometimes I can’t remember things from the day before, or earlier the same day.”
He’s still writing, he says, noting that he has a biography of George Custer coming out in November, and has finished a memoir about his book collection that he hasn’t shipped to his publisher yet. The weekend has been all about the final chapters of that lifetime of accumulating books. But McMurtry says he has given up his work as a novelist. “It’s toward the end of my life,” he says as he contrasts the writing of fiction and the life of a book collector. “One of the great things about the life of an antiquarian bookseller is that it is progressive, you keep getting better and better and better the longer you do it. But writing novels is something else. It’s not progressive. You don’t get better.”
Even so, McMurtry is curtailing his career as a bibliophile as well. Over a period of 55 years, he has collected 450,000 books and housed them in four bookstores in Archer City, Texas, each one called Booked Up and numbered accordingly. It will take just one weekend for most of that library to be taken away. The entire collection, he says “is a potential liability for my heirs”–his son James, a singer-songwriter, and grandson Curtis. “They don’t know the book world. I do. They have their got their own concerns.” They are readers but not bookmen, he says. But, he adds, “I am very proud of them.” By Sunday, he will have offloaded 300,000 books. He will retain 28,000 in his home library while consolidating the rest in a single Booked Up.
“I think having one building with 125,000 really crackerjack books in it is better than having a kind of urban sprawl here on the prairie in which the buildings have grown accidentally, really,” he told TIME. McMurtry began selling books to pay for his reading habits nearly 60 years ago, and has had shops in Washington, Tucson and elsewhere. Fifteen years ago, he brought his books back home to Archer City where the Royal Theater,made famous in McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show, still stands a couple stores down from where the auction took place. He wanted to make the place the American version of Hay-on-Wye, the famous book town on the border of England and Wales that until recently boasted dozens of antiquarian book shops that drew buyers from around the world. But the Internet has taken its toll on the book business. But it isn’t gone yet. “I don’t think it’s dying,” McMurtry says. Indeed, of the 500 lots of books on auction –with about 200 titles each–only three failed to sell on the first of two days. “We have a continuous flow of customers from the world.”
The volumes from Booked Up would leave by the armful and by cartloads and in many cases by the carload. Some buyers brought U-hauls, some sent professional book scouts, and others brought only their curiosity and a feeling that the event dubbed “The Last Book Sale” was something they couldn’t miss.
Pat Garrard spent nearly $20,000 of the money of his boss — a unnamed West Texas rancher, “a self-made wildcatter” with a passion for books, as he calls him. Alan and Marcy Culpin drove from Denver in a minivan, and scooped up about 1,300 books for their own store, Abracadabra Books. Says Alan Culpin: “This is a book sellers’ dream, A huge collection of books, available cheap – which is essential, given the book market — and with all the bad stuff already sorted out.” Culpin’s own business moved entirely to the Internet since he closed down his physical store last year,setting up shop in his basement instead. “
Reed and Ranae Underwood, a couple in their 20s, came from Austin to spend a day at the Booked Up where they had their first date. They filled their small car with boxes, too, creating what they said will be the first inventory of an online book shop.
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Others, meanwhile, just came for the spectacle of all those books and and all those book people in one spot. Self-styled mystic Elizabeth Hin drove two-and-half hours from Dallas with her family to “honor” McMurtry. Her daughter, 23 and fresh out of St. Edwards University in Austin, found a book she had to have within two minutes of walking in the door: A cloth-bound copy of lesser-known poems by T.S. Eliot.
But while the sale may have been a success, a sense of sadness hung over the event as thick as the dust that clung to the streets of Archer City, a ranchers’ town that hasn’t changed much in the 60 years. “You can’t spend a lifetime collecting books and dealing with books without feeling melancholy about this,” said George Getschow, a former editor and Southwest correspondent for The Wall Street Journal who is now writer-in-residence and teacher at the University of North Texas. He had his eye on a couple hundred books, but wasn’t feeling good about it. “Right now [McMurtry] is pleased. He is surrounded by book-buyers and people of his ilk who talk about books and who care about books. … But I just think in a couple weeks it will be a difficult passage for him to see these three stores shut down.” Says Getschow, “This was his dream, to turn Archer City into a book town. … Now this is the end of the dream. There is just no way around it.”
Nevertheless, says Getschow, McMurtry’s continued commitment to books and writing –non-fiction, if not fiction — will continue to makeArcher City a place of pilgrimage for writers seeking inspiration. He says he takes young people from his classes to Archer City each summer for a week and the results are always transformative. “I brought students here two weeks ago, and I surrounded them with books, surrounded them with literature,” he told TIME. “Day after day they are immersed in literature, in books. And by end of the week they are committed to this literary work. They’ve been inducted and no matter what, they’re not going back.”
McMurtry himself claims to have no fear of the virtual library that keeps growing and growing, seemingly at the expense of the printed page. “I don’t feel threatened by the digital world at all,” he says. “I don’t know anything about it. I’ve never even used a computer. I work on a manual typewriter. But you know, life has changed, things are going to change. But I never have felt that the physical book is threatened by the digital or tech books.”
He says the appeal for him as a buyer and seller of books has always been the chance to learn unexpected things. He recalls that one of his first major acquisitions was an entire library of maritime books. “One of the glorious things about being an antiquarian bookman is it educates you. You have to learn about things that otherwise, if you hadn’t bought the book, you would never know about.” But even knowledge is mortal, no matter how powerful the love of books can be. McMurtry says he can still remember exact bibliographical details from thousands of books in his collection. But others now escape him.