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Friday, September 10, 2010

A Bookman's Booktown

Small-town West Texas is not the first place that comes to mind when thinking about books, and even less so when thinking about a Mecca of books. But thanks to native son Larry McMurtry (author of such books as The Last Picture Show and Lonesome Dove), that is exactly what Archer City, Texas has become.

By his own account, it always bothered McMurtry that his hometown had no bookstores (and no library until he helped build one after his writing career flourished). Given that the town has only 2,000 residents, his frustration may have been unrealistic, but men with big dreams are seldom deterred by reality. Thus, when rent at his Booked Up bookstore in Washington, D.C., became too high he moved the store back home to Archer City after more than three decades in the nation's capital. What he created is nothing short of amazing.

Booked Up is not a "store" in the normal sense of the word. It comprises four buildings that take up the better part of downtown Archer City. Spread throughout these four buildings are roughly 400,000 books arranged, according to the comical description on their website:

"Erratically/Impressionistically/Whimsically/Open to Interpretation."

And don't ask them if they have a particular title in stock; they don't know, and wouldn't want to deprive you of the joy of browsing if they did. They're not being rude; the staff is actually very friendly. It's just a quirk you have to deal with when one of the biggest independent used bookstores in the United States has only two employees.

Those employees can almost always be found in Building 1, which houses the rare and signed books as well as the cash register. If you're looking for books on military history, you have to walk to Building 2 and then bring the book back to Building 1 to pay. It's a throwback to a time when merchants actually trusted their customers, as well as an assumption that someone willing to drive that far to shop for books loves books too much to steal them.

And drive you will; the nearest large city is Fort Worth, 110 miles to the east. The bulk of your drive will be on TX-199, the old Jacksboro Highway, which is not the most scenic route in America. But it's easily worth the two-hour trip, or even a three-hour flight from the East Coast followed by a two-hour drive, for both a look at the books and what you might find inside.

During my last trip to Booked Up, I discovered that McMurtry was right when he said they rarely get around to re-pricing their books after they've been shelved (it would be a Herculean task, to be sure). In Building 3, in the Foreign Books and Translations section, I discovered a signed first edition of Carlos Ruiz Zafon's The Shadow of the Wind on the bottom shelf in the back of the building. The price for a signed copy has risen in recent years to roughly $200.00, and I got it at Booked Up for $40.00, an obvious beneficiary of their inability to continually re-price all that stock.

McMurtry says he likes it that way, because the lure of finding a hidden gem keeps people coming to his store, keeps them buying books, and most importantly keeps them reading. Given that this Pulitzer and Oscar winning writer still considers bookselling his true occupation, I'm certainly not going to argue.

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