Guest Blog: The Last Dispatch from Booked Up

A few hours before dusk last Thursday in Archer City's town square, the parking spaces lining the courthouse and the perimeter of shops were at near capacity, yet there was no one in sight. I made a beeline for Building Four of Booked Up--the site of Friday's auction--and inquired about registration and the meet-and-greet. I introduced myself to the auctioneer, and he suggested I head over to the screening of The Last Picture Show that was already well underway; registration would have to wait until the following morning. After fumbling my way into the darkened theater, I grabbed a plate of picked-over BBQ, assorted fixins, a beer, and proceeded to prop up the back wall of the Royal Theater.

As the familiar images flickered past, thoughts of the screening as a bookend for a celebratory yet difficult weekend for Larry McMurtry and his guests entered my mind. I imagined three of the four buildings empty, the perplexed townspeople and their relationship with the author, and all the complexities within his own work and its perception out in the world.

Not that I hadn't come without my own baggage as well. I had been a seasonal regular at Booked Up for well over ten years, and I was disheartened to see the entirety of the stock broken up, though I could certainly understand McMurtry's reasons for doing so. I had simply grown accustomed to my habits and thoughts about and within the shop, looking forward to future trips and reflecting back on good finds, and frankly, I was a little torn-up about the whole darn thing.

The next morning, Building Two trumped a cup of coffee in order to get registered for bidding. Outside the auction venue, a line of about twenty-five people had begun to curl outside the door with about fifteen minutes to go. Soon the appointed time came, and McMurtry appeared to make a short opening statement. In a matter of quick sentences, he managed to express the tenacity of the attendees with regards to the Texas heat, comparing them to the fish population in southern rivers adjusting to the current rise of temperatures. He then thanked his staff, the local businesses, and the residents of this small town, and we were soon underway.

The sixty or seventy chairs filling the main space were full, with additional onlookers standing in the aisles or sitting on the low shelves at the front of the store. The crowd's enthusiasm boosted the start of the 1,400 shelf lots to be sold over the next two days, with many opening in the low hundreds and selling thereabouts. But soon enough they dipped down to a hundred or just below. Most lots had between 200-250 books each, some comprising parts of sections, with others being a hodgepodge of titles.

I began to pace about the building as shelves were steadily emptied and eventually wandered down the street to Building One, the main store that was--and will still be--open for business. McMurtry had returned and was seated at his usual outpost at the front table, holding court with a small group of devotees and journalists. It was difficult not to notice that there was a new assortment of swag positioned about: t-shirts with quotes from Lonesome Dove or Terms of Endearment, bumper stickers, and bags with the Booked Up pig, and a whole shelf of signed McMurtry books for sale; the likes of which hadn't been welcome in these parts for years.   

I headed into the garage beyond and combed through the monolithic stacks that flank the sorting tables, realizing that it had been an area I had neglected in past visits. Not being an air-conditioned space, it can take some stamina to effectively work the room. After a good hour or more, I resurfaced with three quality finds and headed to the register.

When I returned to the auction, they were heading into the hand-picked single book lots of "The McMurtry 100," and a renewed sense of purpose and excitement filled the room. Every few lots, the bidding would ratchet up into the mid-hundreds and then settle down again. I waited for the last-minute additional added lot to come up: a 1,139-page ledger full of original manuscript erotic stories commissioned by a wealthy Oklahoma oilman with an apparent daily appetite for the sordid. Rather quickly, the bidding surpassed my self-imposed limit, and I didn't raise my hand once, watching the lot go to bookseller Tom Congalton of Between the Covers.

After lunch, the walk-through for the upcoming lots in Building Three was the next order of business. I had spent many hours alone in these aisles, mostly poring over translated literature and fiction. Now, I really had no interest in ineffective browsing or bringing several shelves home whose individual volumes I had previously left behind. I left the building and headed to my car, retrieving three McMurtry books I had brought along should I find the courage to ask the daunting question with pen in hand. I prefaced my asking with an apology of sorts, using the notable day's events as an excuse. He signed them all while I thanked him heartily and then beat a somewhat hasty retreat.

Returning to the auction for a spell, I decided I was about done. Successful bidders were packing up their winnings, filling boxes, and overloading their cars. Some bought a few hundred books as a keepsake, while a few hatched future bookstore plans with what they had acquired. The most successful bidders of the day were either those who had the logistics in place to deal with sheer quantity or the space to store thousands of books.

The heat had defeated my enthusiasm and the repetition my curiosity. I headed to the American Legion with some friends to escape for the remainder of the afternoon. After signing in as guests, we ordered some beers and played a few rounds of pool in the back room. Soon enough, other writers started to filter into the cool, dark space, wanting to share stories and opinions of the day's events. Everyone offered their take, and toasts went around the table.

The bookstore and community within this small town had brought this group together years ago, kick-starting their writing lives with local stories, self-imposed isolation, and a knowing guide. I couldn't help but think that McMurtry himself had started much the same long before with the backdrop of Archer City as his subject and muse. Where there once had been a notable absence of books but plenty of space, the sudden release of hundreds of thousands of volumes that had taken years to assemble has created rivulets of books, ideas, and people. We can now only hope for tide pools to gather elsewhere.

Photos and essay by Brandon Kennedy, an occasional artist, former bookseller, and currently works in the modern and contemporary art department at Heritage Auctions. Kennedy wrote our spring issue's cover feature on Larry McMurtry.