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

Famed author Larry McMurtry's shop revitalized the community. Now locals fear what will happen if it's no more.

February 27, 2005|Scott Gold | Times Staff Writer

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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