Monday, August 20, 2012

Thinning the Herd: Larry McMurtry Cuts 300,000 Books Loose in a Two Day Auction

The Royal Theater in Archer City, Texas, inspired Larry McMurtry’s novel, The Last Picture Show, and featured prominently in Peter Bogdanovich’s both brilliant and unrelentingly bleak 1971 film adaptation.  The renovated theater hall was now serving as a large dining room for a pre-auction barbecue dinner Thursday night August 9th complete with all the fixin’s and a truckload of Shiner Bock beer.  The heat outside, even at dinner time, was stifling enough to irritate native Texans and cause consternation among attendees from more northern climes.  Inside however the air blew cool and some 150 book enthusiasts enjoyed food and conversation, all glancing occasionally toward the entrance door for sight of McMurtry.
                He showed up fashionably late, moving slow and steady, suspenders in place, white shirt mildly untucked, tennis shoes and jeans worn easy, completing a look that was a cross between local rancher and bohemian college professor: both wellsprings that flow through his complex personality.  He’d suffered a second heart attack a few months back and at age 76 was physically frail and quiet spoken but mentally sharp.

                The crowd went silent as McMurtry was handed a microphone and stood in front of the large movie screen and addressed the audience.  He introduced our private screening of The Last Picture Show with a brief and witty history of the film which he co-wrote, thanked everybody for coming, and soon disappeared again, probably heading to his nearby home where he lives among his 28,000 volume private library.
                McMurtry is famous as a writer but he considers himself a bookman first and foremost.  He’s been buying and selling used and rare books for over fifty years.  The decision to auction off a good portion of his bookstore stock (some 300,000 volumes) was a pragmatic choice, not surrender to indifference or changes in the book trade.  He emphasized he was downsizing but otherwise it was business as usual.  His main building, containing over 100,000 volumes, remains open for browsers and book hunters, and he’s still buying books.  A true bookman goes out with his boots on.
                As we attendees watched The Last Picture Show together and imbibed in multiple beverages, an atmosphere of coolness began to pervade—coolness in the sense of knowing that this was a place to be, a special event, one that everyone in attendance had cautiously hoped for as they rolled into this tiny one-stoplight town, complete with a Wildcat Cafe, Lonesome Dove Inn, Spur Hotel, and one hell of a lot of books.
                My biblio-cohort, Douglas Adams, and I stayed at the aforementioned Spur Hotel on the third floor, in a small room, with two twin beds, one roll of toilet paper, and a deep tub.  No staff or proprietor did we ever see: it was self-serve with a key waiting in an envelope at the desk.  The front porch of the hotel became a gathering place in the evening.   We talked books and drank from the portable bar of Dick Dougherty and his wife from Arlington, Texas.  Dick, a collector of modern literature and mysteries, came over for the camaraderie and I think got that in spades.  Other attendees and new friends gathered on the porch included Eddy Nix, a Wisconsin bookseller, Hillary Kelly, book enthusiast and writer for the New Republic, Paul Knight, editor for Texas Monthly, and George Getschow, writer-in-residence at the University of North Texas.  The latter two men were regulars in Archer City and had written about McMurtry and his books in the past.
 About 150 bidders registered for the two day auction, ponying up $50 each for the privilege to participate, the amount refundable with a winning bid. The $50 included the barbecue dinner, movie, and a concert on Friday night by Larry McMurtry’s son, James, a regional singer-songwriter of some repute.  James now owned the three buildings containing the books to be auctioned.  When the books were gone his son could do what he wanted with the buildings.  They’d make good antique stores, Larry theorized.
Douglas and I certainly didn’t meet all the bidders but we sampled enough to find that a surprising majority were not full-time booksellers.  Many were like us, collectors and/or part-time dealers and a significant few were youthful bookstore wannabes ready to stock up.   Overall, few planned to bid on much, the lots were too big, the space in the car too small, etc.: rationalizations that would soon evaporate under the grip of auction fever.
We arrived the day before the sale and previewed the lots.  I use previewed in loose terms because the amount of material was overwhelming and total lots exceeded 1,500.  The books for the most part were simply lotted as they stood on the bookshelves.  Each nine foot high shelf of books had a neatly taped lot number affixed.  Individual lots consisted of approximately 200 books, and the lots with pamphlets and ephemera contained much more.   There was no auction catalogue.  If you had an interest in a lot you jotted down the number, made notes, and prepared for battle when it came up for sale.  Either that, or just take a swing at a random lot like Douglas did to see what it brung you.  The bookstore’s three buildings were organized by subject so this helped bidders trying to bid on specific groups of books.
Addison & Sarova Auctioneers of Macon, Georgia, organized the auction. Michael Addison ran the show and served as the sole auctioneer.  I heard that they were the only auction firm with book experience willing to auction the material on-site.    I was skeptical that such a mass of material could be sold efficiently in two days.  This, after all, must qualify as one of the largest shelf-lot sales of all time.  However, except for a few minor hiccups, and a thoroughly worn out auctioneer, all went smoothly.  Lot winners were given two weeks to remove their winnings, particularly helpful for bulk purchasers, so this eased the potential chaos of post-auction book removal.
A quick opinion of the overall offerings is in order.  By Larry’s own count, he’d acquired the stock of twenty-six used / rare bookstores and over two hundred private libraries, all consolidated in Archer City.  The easy, expensive rarities had been picked clean long ago or were for sale in the remaining McMurtry store.  But the stock offered was eclectic and interesting: interesting being a key factor in McMurtry’s approach to bookselling, his continuous separation of the wheat from the chaff.  The runs in certain subjects were probably unmatched by all but a handful of existing stores, if that.  Subsets of foreign languages, works in translation, niche historical subjects, art, science, etc., totaled in the hundreds of volumes, if not thousands—literally walls of books in areas that most used bookstores might carry in only a handful titles.  One unusual section had stacks of miscellaneous non-fiction “remainders” dating back to the 1940s.  Larry’s penchant for aggressive pricing, no internet research necessary or desired, had also left many a decent book on the shelves.   What was prohibitive on an individual item level took an entirely different form of desirability when offered in a large group at wholesale prices.
After a couple of hours of previewing Douglas and I made our way to the main store in search of McMurtry.  Between us we carried five different association copies of Tom Taylor’s Texfake (1991) with an introduction by McMurtry.  Four of the copies belonged to Douglas who has an extensive collection on forgery material.  Texfake tells the real life tale of the forgeries and theft of early Texas documents, the most famous forgery being the Texas Declaration of Independence sold to H. Ross Perot.  McMurtry knew many of the booksellers involved including Johnny Jenkins and Dorman David.    We wanted to show him this gathering of special copies and get his first-hand commentary.
McMurtry held court most of the time at a table near the entrance of the store.  Reporters, well-wishers, friends, and family came and went, the few chairs near him taking on a musical tone, a bottle of Dr. Pepper his only steady companion.  He seemed nonplussed by all the hoopla and answered questions patiently and steadily, shook hands, and signed a few books.  We waited our turn and grabbed two seats at the round table while a reporter next to him fished for a good lead.   Douglas nonchalantly piled up the five copies.  McMurtry was still talking to the reporter but I could see his bookman’s eye spot the stack and a glint of curiosity was aroused.  A brief break came and it was our turn.
“I’ve signed a couple of those in the last few days,” McMurtry said.
“These are some special copies I’d like you to see,” Douglas replied, saddling up close for a rare book show and tell.  Douglas’s superb association items found an appreciative audience: a copy inscribed by co-conspirator, Dorman David, the copy inscribed by Taylor to Henry Morris, proprietor of the Bird & Bull Press, a copy inscribed to Gregory Curtis, former Texas Monthly editor who had written an important article about Johnny Jenkins after the bookseller’s mysterious murder / suicide--- McMurtry stopped Douglas at that one and said, “Greg Curtis is here, he was just in the store.”
A small book world.  We would eventually meet Greg Curtis, he was amazed and amused to hold once again his own inscribed copy, sold by him at a moving sale years ago, bought by Douglas online.     McMurtry began to talk. He recounted his experiences dating back the early 1960s: his working with Houston bookstore owner Grace David, and Dorman David, flavoring the story with details such as the pool table in his home that came from Dorman in exchange for a book debt.  He spoke of stolen documents from the Rosenberg Library in Galveston, a bad man thief who lifted rare documents from county archives, and his opinion that he didn’t think much of Johnny Jenkins as a bookman.   He finished up by adding inscriptions to Douglas and me in our own copies of Texfake.
The trip had been made and not even a book bought yet.   We exited the store into the brilliant afternoon sun, saying little, just soaking in our biblio-adrenaline rush.  Another inspirational book talk with McMurtry the next day resulted in the purchase by yours truly of some sixty boxes of material at the auction, but that story will come soon enough.
We ate at the Wildcat Cafe that evening, surrounded by a mix of bookmen, local ranchers wearing the obligatory overalls, and tall, burly oil field workers who probably once anchored an offensive line.  Almost all of us were hot and dusty, large drink glasses prominent and replenished at a rapid pace.  The sagging booth seats and fixtures had seen better days.  The walls of the diner were lined with local Texas-themed artwork that could be bought although most looked like it had been there awhile.   But the food was good, filling, and cheap.  Congeniality filled the air as did the smell of home-style cooking and coffee.  The waitresses knew the locals by name and were happy to see us foreigners, too.  One pretty, young waitress had an air about her, complete with Texas drawl and mannerisms, that had Douglas and me thinking out loud, “Jacy Farrow (played by Cybill Shephard) in The Last Picture Show.”  McMurtry’s characters indeed sprung from the local well.   After dinner, we rejoined the rotating cast of bibliophiles on the front porch of the Spur Hotel.  The evening ended at Allsup’s Grocery for Douglas’s obligatory late night chocolate milk (the door to their milk frig moo’d when one opened it, no kidding!), and soon I was asleep, my dreams not remembered but surely inundated with books.
The next day, Friday, August 10th, the auction started at 10:00 am.  After a hearty breakfast at the Wildcat, Douglas and I entered McMurtry’s Booked Up Store No. 4 for a preview and auction seating.  All the auctioneering would take place here.  There were chairs for about eighty people and standing room in the back for thirty or forty attendees.  The auctioneer’s lectern rose before us like the preacher’s stand at a bibliophilic church.  Space was tight at the beginning.  Reporters, photographers, bidders, and guests, mingled and jostled for a view of the proceedings.  McMurtry entered , walked the narrow isle between bidders to the front, and addressed the crowd in such a soft voice, even with microphone, that it was difficult to hear in the back rows.  No matter.  He spoke briefly of weather, and fish, and thanked the various local businesses, with only scant mention of books.  Perhaps that would have led to too much talking.   He returned to his seat at the back of the room.
The auctioneer began, opening the first fifty or so lots with a bid of $200.  There were many onlookers, but few bidders early on.  Store No. 4 was being sold first and consisted of a wide variety of subjects including history, architecture, film, music, science, travel, and books about books.  Bigger buyers began to assert themselves:  Powell’s of Seattle, Between the Covers, Midtown Scholar Bookstore of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and others.  The crowd became engaged and by lot 100 a variety of bidders for individual lots emerged.  A few bidders in the back were overlooked by the auctioneer and voiced displeasure, but soon a steady rhythm emerged.  Prices were wholesale cheap, lots selling between $100 and $300, less than a dollar a book in many cases.  The auctioneer dropped the opening bids to $100, sometimes $50, and this stirred more bidding, for how could people pass up lots at that price?  McMurtry stayed for the first thirty minutes and then slowly ambled back to his post in the main store.  He showed no signs of unhappiness then or later. The cost of these books had been recouped long ago, every penny earned was a plus, and every book gone was one less for his heirs to deal with. 
The first lots of personal interest to me were in the books about books section.  These came up for bid before lunch, my bidder paddle poised in hand, about ten lots in play. I didn’t get a single one of them.  The huge section of a few thousand volumes sold fairly strongly, if still wholesale.  It was tough bidding for me since there were only a couple of books in each lot I wanted and none were critical to my collection.   I had been to Archer City twice before as a book hunter, the last time a few years ago, and the stock had changed little in this section.  I had pretty much cleaned out the subject area of priority items during those earlier visits, albeit at retail prices.
 The auctioneer paused for a much needed lunch break.  We would regroup at 1:00 pm for the much ballyhooed auctioning of the “McMurtry 100,” a collection of individual titles selected by McMurtry.  The general media and many at the auction were very excited to see how these individual titles would fare, elevating the list to a higher level of importance than expressed by McMurtry himself.  In reality, the books were an assorted hodgepodge grab-bagged by McMurtry from the shelves with no real theme beyond showing the diversity of the stock offered.  Douglas and I would have rather seen him put a little more thought into the project and selected 100 titles that had particular meaning to him as a bookman and writer.  Opportunity missed.
The most talked about lot of the sale sold later on, purchased for $2,750 by dealer Tom Congalton of Between the Covers, was a 1,139 page assemblage of typescript erotica stories commissioned by a lonely Ardmore, Oklahoma oilman in the 1940s. All the stories were anonymous and there was speculation that Henry Miller, Anais Nin, and Lawrence Durrell might have contributed.  McMurtry himself was skeptical but didn’t fight the notion much.
By the afternoon of the first day the general onlookers had thinned, the auctioneer, Michael Addison, had gotten his second wind, and he was selling 130-140 lots an hour.  Good natured and humorous, he took time occasionally to banter with the audience and egg a bidder a bit higher.  The A/C strained to keep us cool. Free beer and water were readily consumed.
We sat on the window ledge in the very back next to our new friend, Eddy Nix, of Viroqua, Wisconsin, as he regularly outbid the Powell’s representatives sitting in front of him by nudging his bid one higher time after time.  Eddy drove sixteen hours straight in a little Honda to attend the auction and he would be returning in the Honda, but not before arranging with a local long-haul trucker to transport his tens of thousands of volumes of winnings back north.   My book neighbors in Houston, Jay and Dick Rohfritch of Good Books in the Woods, bought but bought judiciously, Jay estimating when the smoke cleared they’d won approximately 100 boxes worth of books, much more than anticipated.  Auction fever at some level engulfed just about everybody.  This was a buying opportunity not to be missed.   Another new friend, Louis Clement, of Hot Springs, Arkansas, owner of a pet store, and part-time bookseller, scratched his head during post-sale book loading of his pick-up truck, springs compressed to a dangerous level, “ I guess I’m the classic case of the man who bought one lot too many.”
I had struck out earlier but was now determined to buy some books and not just be a spectator.  By mid-afternoon the section on Spanish literature in translation came up for sale, primarily Latin American authors, an area that I’ve collected avidly for over twenty years.  I thought I had almost all of the 800 or so volumes offered in the three lots.  No matter, there was still good stuff in duplicates and I bought everything for an absurdly low $400. I selected about a third of the volumes to keep, the rest I gifted to Eddy not wanting to haul them back home.  He promised a royal treatment if I ever made it to his Wisconsin store.  The auctioneers were adamant about not leaving books behind so arrangements had to be made.  A close sorting of my Latin American purchases later revealed almost one hundred new additions to my collection via upgrade, variants, or not having the title at all.
These purchases were just a book appetizer and Douglas and I were still hungry.  Texas hungry.  Our opportunity came in the late afternoon, the drone of the auction mingling with the heat to create a drowsy state as hundreds of lots sold under the hammer.  We’d previewed Building 3 with its long wall of pamphlets grouped by category.  The building also contained shelves of auction catalogues, bookseller catalogues, and related ephemera.  The books about books had sold fairly strongly in the morning but this material was better, more diverse, and tougher to find.  A cursory inspection had revealed much of interest.  Our last visit with McMurtry that afternoon inspired me to dive into the bidding.
We’d sat with him again, his Dr. Pepper bottle still holding place, and talked books.  Rather, I prodded him to talk books.  It didn’t take much.  Brief stories of some of the prominent booksellers he’d known:  West Coast booksellers like Warren Howell, David Magee, Jacob Zeitlin, Peter Howard, Maxwell Hunley, and  Ben & Lou Weinstein.   Other stories emerged from the East Coast: bookseller David Kirschinbaum, who died at age 99 after eighty plus years in the rare book trade,   the great Lowdermilk bookstore in Washington, D.C.,  Goodspeed’s Bookshop in Boston (Larry was selling their 16 foot Goodspeed’s sign in the auction—no takers at $2,500 I heard.)   Some of these stories he’d recounted in Books: A Memoir (2008), but the first-hand version was much better.
After a pause I asked him about the bibliographic pamphlets in Building 3.
“Most of those came from Bill Wreden’s stock I bought.  There’s some good stuff in there.” Wreden had been a prominent California rare book dealer.
We reluctantly left McMurtry to make room for the other people waiting.  Douglas and I were energized.  We knew what to do—or try to do.  Douglas did some quick calculations and estimated at least 2,700 bibliographic pamphlets in the three large shelf lots.  This did not include the other tasty lots of bibliographic material.
“I’m having a good year in real estate, “I said, “And I want those pamphlets.”
“I’ll go in with you, too.” Douglas replied.
“We’re going to buy that whole son-of-a-bitchin’ wall,” I said.  “If not, we’ll make them pay real money for it.”
The drone of lot after lot hammering continued, interrupted occasionally by a surprise skirmish with intense bidding.  The ones we wanted approached and the heart rate increased and we both readied to bid, Douglas on a couple of lots, me on the remaining.  To our immediate relief, the two men who had bid strongly on the books about books were not to be seen.  We sat in the back of the room on that wide window ledge so we could survey any possible competition.  Ready for all out war, we were fortunate to secure any easy victory, me holding the paddle up steady, the feeble competition fading fast against my rapid bids, and then it was over, and we owned every single one of those pamphlets.  We did a fist bump that would have made my teenagers proud. 
Encouraged and under budget, we kept bidding and quickly knocked down a total of eight lots containing thousands of other catalogues and ephemera. 
We took a break outside to exhale and saw McMurtry approaching as he crossed the street, photographers and a reporter in tow.  He stopped briefly and thoughtfully asking Douglas if Greg Curtis, the former Texas Monthly writer had found him yet.
“Not yet,” said Douglas.
McMurtry looked at me.
“We bought all the bibliographic pamphlets,” I said.
He smiled, nodded approval, and continued on, the wind beginning to pick up and swirl the dusty air.  Besides a brief goodbye handshake the next day that was the last time we spoke with him.
Dinner at the Wildcat was sweet after the auction successes.  Chicken fried steak as big as the plate.  Gravy, steamy and thick.  Euphoric was not too strong of a word for how we felt.  Everyone we talked to was in good spirits and had purchased books. The sight of a buyer’s mini-van packed to the proverbial rafters brought up more practical concerns.
“There’s no way we can get all our stuff into the SUV,” I said, referring to my wife’s trusty, mid-sized Hyundai Santa Fe we had driven over in.
“Sure we can.  I know how to pack,” Douglas replied, optimistically.
“So do I and it’s just not possible.”
Our call to U-Haul Friday night was more for grins than substance.  There wasn’t a truck of any size available.  They were already parked in Archer City.  You’d have thought the whole town had suddenly decided to pack up and move.  Douglas was quiet for a moment and I could tell the mental gears were grinding, “We don’t really need a U-Haul.  Another SUV would do it.  How about the rental car companies at the Wichita Falls airport?”
Great idea.  A succession of calls with no luck until we reached Budget rental and reserved the only Ford Expedition they had.  It should be noted that while I was searching for transportation, Douglas and our friend Dick Dougherty scouted a huge pile of fiction titles culled by an auction buyer and left at the door of the Archer City Public Library across the street from the Spur Hotel: a somewhat philanthropic donation but if imitated by other buyers could have easily overwhelmed the small library.  Douglas returned with a flashlight in one hand and a couple of signed modern firsts in the other while Dick had found a signed Updike for his collection.  Bookmen never stop scouting. 
This second and last evening at the Spur went smoothly.  I was going to miss the shower and deep tub with a huge, uncovered window adjoining.  No woman would have accepted the situation but a little steam and window fog and I was good to go.  Saturday morning was a replica of the morning before:  hot, sunny, endless sky, with a light breeze, book people milling about.  Douglas and I discussed bidding options at the Wildcat over breakfast.  We decided we were done.  The last building had plenty of solid books but they were outside of our specific interests.   The Saturday auction continued into the afternoon, the methodical hammering of hundreds of lots, and it was over, the stock of all three buildings sold, the remaining bidders spilling out into the street like stray cattle.   Douglas and I spent most of the day packing up our winnings and sweating.  When the book dust settled our two vehicles groaned under the weight of almost sixty boxes. 
We bid our goodbyes to new friends and old books, then rolled out of town, the flat Texas ranchland greeting us with indifference.  McMurtry’s plans for a Texas book metropolis with multiple dealers and stores may never have materialized but his Booked Up effort was quite a one man show.  His auction revealed that the used and rare book world has plenty of life left, plenty of spirit, and a heartening influx of youth.  As McMurtry commented about the sale, "It's become an event that has transcended its literal purpose."  The books he cut from his huge herd will go a long way in nourishing the next generation, and in the end, that’s what he desired most.

Photos from the event.  Most taken by Douglas Adams. 

The Royal Theater
Eddy Nix and Kurt Zimmerman at the BBQ

Watching The Last Picture Show
The Spur Hotel
The Wildcat Cafe

Auction attendees await the start
McMurtry gives his brief introduction
The window ledge at the back of the bidding area
McMurtry holding court
Douglas Adams with McMurtry discussing Texfake
Kurt Zimmerman hears some good book stories
Oh so many temptations.....
A reminder that one vehicle is not enough
Douglas packing up our winnings

The former home of the three huge lots of bibliographic pamphlets we bought
Texas style BBQ smoker spotted during driving break

Late Breaking News: McMurtry Himself Just Wrote a Piece on the Sale:

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