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Author creates readers' mecca

Pulitzer Prize-winner Larry McMurtry is bringing new fame to a tiny Texas town -- one used book at a time.

August 22, 2003|Jon Herskovitz | Reuters

ARCHER CITY, Texas — Dusty streets, a blinking traffic light and churning oil rigs in the bone-dry hills are the backdrop for the classic movie "The Last Picture Show" -- and for an unlikely oasis for used-book lovers.

Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Larry McMurtry, author of "Terms of Endearment," "Lonesome Dove" and "The Last Picture Show," has turned his hometown of Archer City into what several book dealers say is one of the preeminent places in the United States to search for used books.

His store, called Booked Up, fills four buildings in the town square and has 200,000 to 300,000 books on the shelves.

McMurtry would like to turn Archer City -- population 1,848 -- into a book town.

About 140 miles northwest of Dallas, Archer City is an oil town set in rugged land. It was the main location for "The Last Picture Show," a movie about despair and perversity in small-town America. Although his small town may seem like an unlikely place for a successful bookstore, customers come and the business turns a profit. Book dealers account for about 50% of sales and willingly travel to Texas to hunt for new treasures.

McMurtry said the dynamics of the used-book trade have changed, making it difficult for booksellers to have large stores in major urban areas and easier for them to set up shop in the countryside, where real estate and overhead costs are lower.

In some respects, McMurtry's store is a throwback to a different time. After customers select their books, they are expected to walk across the street to the complex's lone cash register in building No. 1.

"We don't have a serious theft problem. I am sure that we have somebody take a book every once in a while. We don't miss it. A serious theft problem is always by professional thieves," McMurtry said.

In the Internet age, Booked Up basks in being off-line. There are no computerized lists of books, offerings on Web auction house EBay.com or any of the trappings of the e-commerce age. And McMurtry thinks that's the way to do business.

"The reason we are successful as an open-shelf bookshop is because customers can't find out what we have on the Internet. They have to come. They have to look at the books. It is very old-fashioned, but it works," McMurtry said.

The business relies on word-of-mouth recommendations and serendipity. McMurtry hopes a customer who may be looking for an illustrated book on migratory birds will also walk away with an armful of volumes on different subjects.

The store carries, among other things, books on Americana, tales of Eskimo hunters a century ago and first-edition English translations of the Japanese writer Mori Ogai.

Teresa Johanson, a used-book dealer in Baltimore, said that Booked Up is well-known in the trade and that McMurtry is a highly respected bookseller. "He's a wonderful bookman and he has amassed a wonderful collection out there," Johanson said.

McMurtry won a Pulitzer Prize for his fictional masterpiece about the American west, "Lonesome Dove," but his books are not for sale at Booked Up. He grew weary of trading on his celebrity and declines to sign his books.

At age 67, one of America's most-celebrated writers divides his time between writing -- mostly nonfiction nowadays -- and sifting through boxes in search of interesting titles for his store. After writing in the morning, McMurtry typically unlocks the store, then peruses boxes of books that are purchased with the help of scouts throughout the country. He spreads the new arrivals out on a table and prices the ones that will go on the store's shelves.

Through the book venture, McMurtry is, in a sense, returning to his roots.

In the 1950s, before his writing brought wealth and fame, McMurtry was a book scout who sought out used volumes for dealers.

And about three decades ago, he opened a used bookstore in Washington, D.C. His personal library contains about 25,000 books, which he draws upon for his nonfiction writing.

Explaining the appeal of owning a rare bookshop, McMurtry said: "Writing is an imaginative, emotional, emotive effort. The process of selling rare and out-of-print books is much drier. For me, it has always been a perfect balance."

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