Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Last Bookstore Utopia

Warehouse #4: Music, Cookery, Anthropology
This has been a week of unfortunate demises, including the death on August 6th of my all-time favorite critic, Robert Hughes (of whom I will probably write later), and last Thursday’s announcement in the Daily Poop (front page, no less) that Larry McMurtry was closing Booked Up and putting most of the stock on the auction block. Hell, the story even made the New York Times.

In years past the Beloved Spouse and I, along with sundry colleagues, had made more-or-less annual pilgrimages to the ou-topia (no-place) of Archer City, Texas to spend money we didn’t have on what was housed in the four warehouses that lined the Jack County courthouse square.  We’d start out early in the morning and head west, stop for local Denton honey along the way, eat lunch at the Green Frog Restaurant in Jacksboro (I have the tee-shirts to prove it, and a mug or two) and spend the afternoon among books. When we got to Booked Up, we’d split up and head in different directions, aiming for whichever warehouse would satisfy our particular desires. My companions and I would occasionally meet as our paths crossed (we’d all end up in the literature section at some point) and then converge on the main building to have our treasures tallied up and checked out before we headed back to the Big City.

Except for Half Price Books, a used bookstore in Denton, and our local antiquarian shop, the Book Gallery, there are few true bookstores in this part of Texas.  The new-book purveyors in the area are increasingly crowding out actual books with toys, games, gimmicks, and cooking demonstrations—which is why I seldom bother to visit them anymore.  New books are more easily bought or downloaded from online sources.

But there’s just nothing as good for the little grey cells as a browse through a bookstore like McMurtry’s, where the unexpected could be found tucked away where it might remain for years.  I can remember a pretty treatise on lilies that I’d seen at Booked Up one year, and it was still there two years later, when I finally bought it.  One seldom found a real bargain, because he knew exactly what he had and what it was worth—despite the thousands of books that passed through every year. But one never felt cheated, either, especially when the “find” was a personal treasure:  a copy of an Elbert Hubbard “Little Journeys” issue, a facsimile of the Tres Riches Heures of the Duc de Berry, a speech by Morris printed in his Golden type. Once, while I was ensconced in the art section leafing through another facsimile of a Limbourgh Brothers book of hours, McMurtry loped in with a box for shelving, glanced at what I had and said, “I’d forgotten that was here.” I bought it, for forty bucks, certain that I wouldn’t have a second chance on that one.

There were never many folks in town when we were there.  Archer City is remote (although just down the highway from Wichita Falls), hot, dry, empty, and attractive mainly to Lonesome Dove and Last Picture Show movie fans—and ardent bibliophiles who don’t mind long car trips.  Although the main store is staying open, the contents of the other three warehouses were auctioned off in shelf lots last weekend, and we weren't there to bid. I do wonder what will become of the town, though; we’re not really fans of McMurtry’s books, so we’ll probably never go back.  I might pick up DVDs of the movies made from those books, if only to get a sense of what Archer City was like when he was younger. But I think I already know, to some extent.  I remember when Lone Pine had a movie theater, and I remember when it closed.  There are probably hundreds of little old Western towns like these, from Texas to California, that have teetered on the brink of extinction for a couple of generations or more. 

Most of these are no-places, but they might once have been good-places (eu-topias)—good enough, at least, for someone who loved them to memorialize them in novels, poems, films, photographs, or paintings.  What saddens me most is the real possibility that they might simply be forgotten by a world that no longer values memory--or even reading.  But Archer City will remain because one man thought well enough of the place that he would spend years turning it into a mecca for book lovers.  We may not go back to the town, but we won’t forget it, either.

Image credits: Alas, all of my photos from Archer City trips are buried under the detritus of renovation. So I'm thankful that Surgeonsmate was generous enough to post this on the Larry McMurtry article in Wikipedia.


jabblog said...

It's sad to witness the last gasps of a community before it is swallowed up by urban sprawl or - worse - slowly fades away. Your comment on book shops being subsumed by toys, games and other knick-knacks strikes a chord. Even those shops that have managed to retain their status as book sellers have reduced or restricted their stock to 'best-sellers'. Little wonder, then, that online business is booming.

Anonymous said...

It is the scent of well loved books piled high awaiting new homes that I love most about these shops. I was sad to read of the demise of the great collection warehoused in Archer City but they are now traveling to other shops,new families and collections will be joined their journey will continue into the hands of new readers.