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Closing Bookstore May Close a Vital Chapter of Town's Life

Sun Feb 27, 7:55 AM ET

By Scott Gold Times Staff Writer

ARCHER CITY, Texas — You've got to work to get here, and not many do. But one day, the author Larry McMurtry sauntered back as if he were WF Call himself — the former Texas Ranger who led a cattle drive to the highlands in McMurtry's epic, "Lonesome Dove." home page
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Rapt by the Western myth he has spent a career trying to dispel, McMurtry not only moved back to his hometown but brought his side business with him. In the 20 years since it opened, Booked Up Inc., a collection of rare and old books, has become the largest business in town.

Now it's slated to close.

The 1,800 people who live in Archer City — many of them ranchers, all of them outnumbered by cows and dust devils — are a hearty lot. But they might have a tough time weathering this. Many believe McMurtry's business has helped keep Archer City alive.

If it closes, they fear the town might blow away.

"You don't just pass through Archer City," said Brandy Hilbers, 20, who has worked in the shop since she finished seventh grade. "I still have hope that he'll keep it open. We all do."

McMurtry, 68, plans to close it, at least temporarily, at the end of the year. He announced his decision this month in a note taped to the front door of his shop.

The note said that he and his business partner, Marcia Carter, had "been happily buying and selling antiquarian books for thirty-five years and are by no means ready to say a final goodbye to the trade."

"I, however, need a sabbatical," the note continued. "The books will stay right where they are. They can slumber in their majesty until the next turn of the wheel."

It's a comforting notion. And it's true that most of the books — such as the six-volume "Collected Works of Erasmus," or the one about Egyptian birds — would be OK if they collected dust for a while.

But McMurtry, who has written nearly 30 books and 30 screenplays, many exploring the romance of the West through characters more flawed than heroic, might be the only one in town who can afford a sabbatical.

His shop contains 400,000 books, so many that it takes up four buildings, all lining the Archer City courthouse square. The office is in the main building, Booked Up No. 1, which was once a Ford dealership. Purchases of books stored in other buildings are made through the honor system; customers walk them across the street or down the block to pay for them.

The buildings contain an astonishing collection of books that are rare, out of print or just peculiar.

On one shelf is "Medicine Bags and Bumpy Roads," the history of healthcare in Madison County, Texas. Bound volumes of the "Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland" date to 1890.

One of the oldest appears to have been printed in 1796: "A Short Account of the Treacherous and Inhuman Conduct of the French Officers and Soldiers Towards the Peasants of Saubia During the Invasion of Germany."

There are books in Russian and Yiddish, books about British flora and an instruction manual for drawing caricatures. The only books that are not here, it seems, are McMurtry's — he refuses to sell them, partly because he doesn't want to be asked to sign them.

A list of categories is on the wall. There are a few bookstore standards, such as mythology and African studies. The rest reflect the store's eccentricity: "Texana," "Guns and Gunsmithing," "Books About Books." A page of frequently asked questions on one wall explains that the books are arranged "Erratically/ Impressionistically/ Whimsically."

Prices are written in pencil in the upper right corner of every first page. They range from cheap ("Quick Lessons in Hieroglyphics," $3) to rare and antique ("Atalanta in Calydon," first issue from 1865, $1,250).

McMurtry's enterprise represents a significant portion of commerce in Archer City, and is virtually the only reason that anyone comes to visit. There has been something of a renaissance in recent years, almost entirely because of the shop.

A bed-and-breakfast, the Lonesome Dove Inn, has opened, with rooms decorated in themes from McMurtry's novels. A cafe has opened on the courthouse square.

And the Royal Theater, across the square from the bookshop buildings, reopened for theater and other performances in 2000, 35 years after it burned down. The theater was immortalized in the 1971 film "The Last Picture Show," based on a McMurtry book about coming of age in a dying Texas town.

Business at the bookshop is never a stampede. Just a handful of customers come in on most weekdays, but the pace picks up on weekends.

The son and grandson of ranchers, McMurtry graduated from Archer City High School in 1954, one in a senior class of 19 kids. He got good grades and was always a talented and prolific writer.

College and early success as a writer led him to Houston and to Washington, D.C., where he opened the first Booked Up in 1970. He opened several bookstores through the decades, started the first one in Archer City 20 years ago, and began consolidating his scattered side business here after he moved back in 1997.

McMurtry owns a home in Archer City, full of his personal collection of 27,000 books. He plans to keep the house, but he has been living most of the time in Arizona recently.

"Larry's a hometown boy, but he never really fit back in," said Mary Webb, who grew up with McMurtry, is an owner of the Lonesome Dove Inn and remains friends with him. "This is the only thing in the world like this. And it will not be available to the public anymore. Not only will this have an impact on the community, but the book world as a whole. This is just a treasure."

In a telephone interview from Arizona, McMurtry said there were a number of factors in his decision.

Profits, he said, plummeted in the 1990s when two chain bookstores opened in Wichita Falls, which is 25 miles to the north and the closest city of any size.

Those kinds of stores increasingly sell large numbers of reprinted books, which means there are fewer classics not readily available. Large chain stores are also able to stock books and music, which draw a younger crowd.

"Our customers are all over 45," McMurtry said.

He said he was also weighing several opportunities and ideas for new books, including one on the great streets of the world — "like Broadway," he said. He would like to travel for those books soon, he said, and would not be able to pay proper attention to the shop.

"It doesn't mean that I'll never open again," he said. "This is not a fire sale. Everything will still be there if we want to open up again."

McMurtry acknowledged struggling with the decision because of the economic activity he had generated. "I do feel a certain obligation," he said. "But I don't know quite what to do about that."

Some have encouraged him to keep the store open and let someone else run it, which is pretty much what happens most days.

But McMurtry still controls the day-to-day operations, even if it's only through regular telephone calls. He handles much of the buying that keeps the collection fresh. And he knows the collection better than anyone — so much so that he has been known to refuse to sell a book because it's the last copy in the store.

On a recent afternoon, the activity in Booked Up No. 1 was at a typical pace.

Brandy Hilbers was there, keeping the books. Sophie and Leo, two stray cats that live inside, stared through a visitor with typical feline disdain. Back in the stacks — between sections labeled "Christmas" and "Western Pulp Fiction" — were all of two customers.

Dick Deem, a Shawnee, Okla., optometrist, and his wife, Cody, were on their way to Fort Worth when they decided to take a detour to Archer City. By the end of the day they would travel 215 miles out of their way just to see the shop.

Deem said McMurtry was his favorite author, and he had long wanted to pay a visit. On their way out of town, the Deems also planned to stop for ice cream at a marginally famous Dairy Queen — the one that was used as the setting for the McMurtry essay "Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen." The essay is a requiem for a simpler time, and many fans consider it something of a McMurtry autobiography.

"We've got two or three hours here and that won't be near enough," Deem said. "You've got to be here to appreciate it. I can't believe it's going to close. It's a real shame. You wish it could be here forever."

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