Thursday, July 31, 2008

A Man Walks Into a Bookstore

Larry McMurtry started collecting books in 1942 at age 6, when a cousin who was going off to war gave him his library of 19 boys’ adventure stories. McMurtry, who lived on a book-free ranch in Texas, was stunned to learn that there could be made up stories. He re-read his library numerous times, and by the time he was a senior in high school, his passion for books was a full-blown disorder. Today, most know McMurtry as the author of nearly 40 novels and numerous screenplays including Terms of Endearment, The Last Picture Show, and Lonesome Dove, and the screenplay for Brokeback Mountain. But his pride and joy is his used and antiquarian bookstore, Booked Up, which contains over 400,000 volumes housed in a several buildings in downtown Archer City, Texas. Perhaps if his cousin had given him only one book instead of a library, he would have kept his bookstore to a one-building operation, but I doubt it.

McMurtry details his lifelong obsession in Books: A Memoir, published this July. The tiny chapters read more like the kind of short, frequently interrupted conversations one has say, behind the counter of a bookstore. They are nearly blog-like, which would seem an anathema to McMurtry. To this day, he has refrained from putting any part of his vast collection online. He remains a thoroughly old-world collector and bookseller. Because of that, his memories of books and book people are richly anecdotal stories about the highly eccentric substrata of people for whom particular words on particular pieces of paper are imbued with an almost spiritual power, not unlike relics in the Church.

McMurtry’s milieu includes gum-shoe book scouts who think nothing of spending hours sifting through yard-sale detritus for pristine copies of vintage American pulp fiction or rare first editions. They could be collectors enhancing their own libraries, or they could be dealers, turning their finds into profit. It also includes the likes of Dorman David, the son of a wealthy Texas rancher who, in the sixties, used his inheritance to design a mouth-watering bookshop complete with humidor and set about acquiring books from major dealers in Texana and Americana. It seems he bought more like a collector and less like a dealer, leaving very little room for profit and soon “flamed out”, leaving his mother and sister, who were ill-equipped for the task, to dispose of his treasures. McMurtry lent them a hand and remains friends with the mother, now in her nineties.

One of my favorites in McMurtry’s rich pantheon of book people is the scout known for his habit of scooting along the floor of a bookstore on his bottom to study the lower shelves. This man never left a bookstore with a clean behind, but he also discovered a number of treasures overlooked by scouts with a more upright posture. One could say he stooped to conquer. My favorite bookstore of the hundreds McMurtry has scouted, worked in, partially or wholly-owned, or simply bought out, was housed behind the San Francisco Chronicle where the floor-to-ceiling shelves were so high customers were given binoculars to browse.

Another of those hundreds of bookstores McMurtry walked into over his 50 year career as a bookman was Left Bank Books where, in 1994, he and his co-author Diana Ossana read from their novel, Pretty Boy Floyd. There were a polite number of people in attendance and they bought a polite number of books. The surprise of the evening came when the reading was over and McMurtry and Ossana fell upon our poetry section with a fervency I had never experienced in a customer before. Seven hundred dollars later, they left, only to return the next morning and do it again. It occurred to me then, that we might actually be running a world class bookstore. We have kept an infrequent contact with McMurtry since then, trading in the odd first edition here and there.

I hadn’t expected to find our store mentioned in his memories, but was surprised to find another St. Louis store mentioned, Lost Generation Books. I was surprised mostly because there has never been a Lost Generation Books in St. Louis. On a hunch, I called Book Up in Archer City to ask about this. Khristal, who took the call, promised to ask him and get back to me. Two days later, she did. “Larry says yes, he was thinking of Left Bank Books when he wrote that, but he got the name mixed up with a bookstore in McLean [Virginia] where he also used to shop.”

Nowadays, when he feels a scouting urge come on, McMurtry heads out to the lower 40 of his own warehouse and is delighted to find, say a woefully under-priced edition of an early Anthony Powell novel which he re-prices from $7.50 and resells immediately for $350. While his rancher relatives may have stocked a pond with bass, McMurtry has a fully stocked library to troll.

Larry McMurtry is a rare breed, clearly a case of nature over nurture. His habitat is secondhand bookstores and private libraries. I consider myself privileged to have grazed near him. In these days of internet shopping, people brag of finding a specific title or edition of something they’re after with a few clicks, but those are empty calories, as if they pushed away a five star meal for drive-through, forgetting, almost, why one reads in the first place. They will never know what they might have missed in this surgical operation, what embarrassment of riches—in sights, sounds, relationships and yes, books—that could have been theirs had they spent a few moments more, and walked into a bookstore.
In Memorium. I am saddened to say goodbye to another passionate book person. Larry Sather, who taught English at St. Louis Community College, Florissant Valley for 39 years, passed away June 27. I loved his dry wit and withering commentary on current affairs, and especially the long conversations we used to have in the basement office of the bookstore where he’d plunk himself down for a chat whenever he stopped by, which was frequently. He was a great supporter of the store, and a dear bookstore friend. He will be missed.