Thursday, April 15, 2021

McMurtry, Pass By

Larry McMurtry & Kurt Zimmerman in 2012

Larry McMurtry died recently, and both the writing world and the antiquarian book trade mourn his passing.  McMurtry thought of himself as a bookseller as much as a writer, although that is not how he will generally be remembered.  For he was a good and prolific author of fiction; a natural storyteller that also ventured successfully into history, screenplays, and insightful essays which covered many topics.  I enjoy his essays the most.  But I still a have a tough time forgiving him for killing off Gus McCrae’s pigs at the end of Lonesome Dove.
        McMurtry scouted and sold used and rare books since his college days.  These scouting adventures were loosely drawn upon for example in his novel Cadillac Jack about a rodeo cowboy turned antiques hunter.  McMurtry had a predilection for buying whole book collections rather than straining out the rarities and leaving the rest.  He told me in 2012 he’d purchased the stock of twenty-six used / rare bookstores and over 200 private collections.  So, he dealt mainly in quantities of better used books rather than focusing on rare ones, although he sold plenty of the latter over a long bookselling career.  He would go on to establish used bookstores in Houston, Washington, D.C., and his hometown of Archer City, Texas.  He eventually closed the Houston and Washington, D.C. stores and doubled down on the Archer City location.  Here he filled a number of buildings he owned on the town square with over 300,000 books in all subjects.  He may have had an American vision of Hay-on-Wye in mind.  That didn’t quite happen, but he did attract a steady stream of book hunters to the tiny north Texas town far from big city amenities. 
I made my first book buying pilgrimage to Archer City in 2001.  I arrived on a toasty August day, stopped at the Dairy Queen for an Oreo blizzard, and got situated in my room at the Lonesome Dove Inn.  The Inn was owned by friends of McMurtry.  They were used to having a variety of book hunters come through – in fact, I think book people were their primary guests.  I still have my Lonesome Dove Inn t-shirt. 
I wasted no time in entering the main bookstore down the block from the town square.  I was the only customer there.   The rambling old building was packed with books and organized pretty well.  This organization was greatly assisted by a couple of local women employees who kept shop.  However, McMurtry was a hands-on bookseller and often in the store, even with the pull of his writing and its offshoots of signings, engagements, and general celebrity status.  I could see McMurtry in the back room, a cavernous space, rapidly sorting and pricing huge stacks of book skyscrapers.  By this time in his career, his occasionally cantankerous personality led to irritation when a fan showed up simply for an autograph.  
        I introduced myself and mentioned a couple of booksellers we both knew.  His countenance changed and we had a pleasant discussion about Texas book people.  I was anxious though to look at books.  When I revealed my primary interest was books about books and bibliography, he stopped penciling prices and nodded approvingly.   
“That’s over in building 4 across the square,” he said.  “Lot of stuff for you.  I bought a whole group of bibliographic material from Brattle Books years ago, for example.  There are also auction catalogues and pamphlets in building 3.”  
        Each of the auxiliary book buildings were boldly numbered on the facade for convenience. Before entering building 4, I walked past the late 19th-century courthouse and Veterans Memorial en route, paused at the one stoplight in downtown, and noticed the Royal Theatre made famous by The Last Picture Show in view just down the corner.  I smelled barbecue cooking somewhere. 
And what a sight I beheld when I entered the building!  High ceilings and white shelves that stretched endlessly gave the place an airy feel.  The building was well lit and illuminated a rainbow of dust jackets and bindings.  The bibliographic section was huge, encompassing a range of shelves at least thirty feet long.  The whole Archer City complex was like that.  Specialized subjects that would be normally represented in a most stores by a few shelves of material were often found to have entire sections in Archer City -- the result of decades of buying massive amounts of books – literally creating a bookstore of bookstores.  Building 4 would be the site of the McMurtry book auction many years later.
Honest word must be said about the stock itself and McMurtry’s pricing.  Much of the collectible stock had been rode hard and put up wet.  It was tired and picked over by professional bookslingers who had previously come into town and taken no prisoners.  Many of the rarer books remaining were either overpriced or in poor condition.  The general stock was aggressively priced as well, the result of a pre-internet mindset when uncommon books were harder to find.  McMurtry was also known for the speed and bravado of pricing books.  He rarely consulted price references and relied on his instincts.  This could work to a buyer’s advantage as we’ll soon see, but often resulted in ranges of books that would require a needy retail buyer to magically appear in rural Texas to make a sale.  But enough books were sold to keep things afloat, and if you didn’t actually find as many books as you hoped on a visit to Archer City, you enjoyed the ambiance.
But for me on this occasion it was a unicorn moment.  A cursory search of the biblio-section indicated it hadn’t been scouted hard by a knowledgeable book hunter in recent memory.  Over the length of a book hunter’s career, there are rare opportunities when you find a bookstore for the first time with a section of books in your area of interest that yields great riches.  Much like discovering an unplundered Egyptian tomb.  I began my bibliological dig, pulling each book and looking for interesting provenance and inscriptions, savoring the process.  This took some time with the amount of material involved.  It grew late in the day and my stomach growled, and my stacks of selected books soared. 
Larry McMurtry’s sudden presence startled me.  I’d been so focused on hunting that I hadn’t heard him enter.  The setting sunlight from the wide store windows at his back cast a shadow of McMurtry across the floor, larger than life.
“We close soon,” he said.  
Before I could reply, he added, “But I’ll just leave the building open for you.  Stay as late as you want.  Tell my friends at the Lonesome Dove Inn hello.”
I stammered thank you and he smiled and left the building, in no hurry.
I didn’t get around to eating until much later and I remained past midnight.  It was quiet and dark outside except for the lights of an occasional passing car, the town square empty of people.  It felt a little eerie being alone in the store, but I locked the door, and continued the hunt.  I’d found about 100 items that I wanted including a small stack of unpriced books.  Within the unpriced stack was one gem I desired badly.  It was a copy of Gabriel Well’s Gentle Reactions (1923) inscribed to none other than Harry Houdini!

Gabriel Wells (1862-1946) was one of the foremost antiquarian booksellers of the early 20th century, a rival of Rosenbach and George D. Smith; his clients included Huntington, Folger, Pforzheimer, Berg, J. K. Lilly, and many more.   He was also a highly educated man, and according to Dickinson’s Dictionary of American Antiquarian Booksellers, “spent three years at Harvard University, became a tutor in German and psychology and a protégé of the distinguished philosopher William James.”  His book Gentle Reactions was a collection of essays focusing on WWI and its aftermath.
Harry Houdini (1874-1926) needs no general introduction, but lesser known was his avocation as a book collector.  He formed an extensive library on magic, spiritualism, and theatre.  A contemporary account recorded he had approximately 15,000 books and fifty thousand prints, along with literally tons of supplemental material.  The Library of Congress acquired a substantial portion of his library after his death by bequest and the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas has significant holdings. 
So, it was with trepidation the next morning that I carried the stack of unpriced books to the main store.  McMurtry was not in yet, but I was told to leave the books and come back later.  My intensive booking continued and the hours passed like minutes.  By the time I returned in the afternoon, McMurtry had priced and gone.  
I sorted through the stack, saving the Wells-Houdini book for last.  McMurtry’s prices were haphazard.  I put a few back as too much, others were priced within my reach.  With the huge pile of already priced material I’d selected, my book budget was strained to bursting and choices had to be made.  
Then, the Wells.  I opened the cover slowly and kept a cool face as I stood near the bookshop employee, but my insides boiled over -- $35 was freshly penciled by McMurtry on the front free endpaper above the inscription.
I cannot think of another writer of his stature that was as dedicated a bookman.  Yet his 2008 effort Books: A Memoir about his bookselling career was a disappointment when I first read it.  The work felt rushed and unfocused, and I had higher expectations given McMurtry’s writing ability and book experiences.  But when he was persuaded to put his biblio-experiences on paper, they had lost the verdant richness of immediacy, and certainly his full attention.  I have eased into forgiveness about the book nowadays. McMurtry’s life as a bookseller was as full and satisfying as his creative life.  A life immersive and practical.  For he always had more books to hunt, more to buy, more to price, and that gave him balance.  
        I settled up my bill and loaded the stacks of new acquisitions into my car.  I stopped on the way out at the Sonic for a jalapeno cheeseburger, extra-large order of tots, and a fully sugared Dr. Pepper, grande size.  Not my healthiest meal admittedly, but it tasted like true goodness in my euphoric state.  My stomach would later remind me otherwise.

Related Resources:

My 2012 first-hand account about the McMurtry Auction in Archer City


  1. Wonderful memoir, I really enjoyed it. I suppose that most people who read McMurtry's books were unaware he was an antiquarian bookseller. How wonderful it must have been for you to peruse his shelves of books. Many thanks!

    1. Thanks so much for reading and the kind comments. I did enjoy my interactions with McMurtry. And as you say, most do not realize his deep involvement in bookselling.

  2. an enoyable read - thanks for tsaking the time to read it
    Terry T :-))

  3. Fantastic Kurt, just Fantastic. Larry McMurtry will always be known as an author (Lonesome Dove and The Last Picture Show will ensure that) but the bookman that resided in him also needs a permanent record. Your two blog posts, first on the big auction and now on your earlier visit to Archer City and Booked Up insure that legacy will live on in print- especially with Rare Book Hunting now out (containing the auction story) and this current posting clearly deserving a spot in the eventual volume 2 of Rare Book Hunting. Being locked in at night in Store 4- what a wonderful story and so telling of Larry's love of books and the people that also loved them! Bravo!