Monday, August 13, 2012

Wordcraft -- The late, great Archer City book sale

I came to the small North Texas town of Archer City, home of legendary writer Larry McMurtry, to witness something historic -- the sale of more than 300,000 books from McMurtry’s equally legendary bookstore, Booked Up, Inc. The store billed it as “the last booksale from the town that brought you The Last Picture Show.”

The couple ahead of me in the line to attend the auction were bidder number 150 and guest. I must have done a double take. Only 150 people showed up to buy this many books? From the man who wrote the Pulitzer-winning Lonesome Dove? Not to mention, of course, The Last Picture Show. And dozens more.

“We thought we’d be lucky to get a hundred,” one of the women handling the paperwork at the registration table said.

“Most people would want to register before an auction,” a second said severely.

The third jotted bid numbers on bid sheets for potential buyers, or stick-on labels with the letter “G” for non-buying guests, like me. Despite the enormous number of books, some editions worth thousands of dollars, the process had a casual air. This, after all, was the bookstore comprising four warehouse size buildings where bookworms had been left on their honor to carry their finds down the street to the sole building with a cashier.

And a sale where the auctioneer, after puzzling for a moment over McMurtry’s handwritten notes, could tell the audience he wasn’t sure whether the reserve price on a book was $100 or $600, but he’d give us the benefit of the doubt and start at the lower price.

I’d walked in during the sale of what McMurtry had listed as one hundred favorite books from his shelves, the ones sold individually instead of by the shelf. The auctioneer’s guess was probably right -- most had a reserve price of not more than a hundred dollars. To my surprise, several didn’t even meet the reserve, to remain unsold. Until the last.

The sale catalogue listed the final individual item without title or author, as only “a rare collection of erotica.” The auctioneer from the firm of Addison and Sarova added that the collection was assembled during the 1930’s and 1940’s by an unnamed Texas oilman, and contained original typescripts. “Mr. McMurtry,” he said, “wanted to find something special for this sale.”

It was. The bidding, which had become lethargic, livened. The volume’s reserve price was $750. It sold for $2,750. 

Downtown Archer City assumed the solemn-festive air of a wake for the sale, probably the largest commercial transaction to take place in the last century in the town with a population in the neighborhood of 1,850. Drivers at the single blinking red light on the corner deferred to each other with the courtesy usually extended to funeral processions. Cafes around the courthouse square stayed open beyond their normal lunchtime hours. Even the public library, usually closed on weekends, advertised it would open  Saturday, August 11, the final day of the sale, to offer internet connections and air conditioning for auction guests.

Despite earlier fears, McMurtry, age 76, announced he was only reducing his stock, not closing. Booked Up will remain in business, whittled down to a single building and a mere 150,000 or so volumes. For days and hours of operation, see its website,


  1. Hey, where were you? I totally missed you in the crowd.

    1. Glimpsed you in the crowd as I was leaving Friday afternoon. Enjoyed your takes on the sale.