Book Ranch.

Larry McMurtry will no longer sign books in his store and he will no longer sign books sent to him in the mail.  Forty years of signing books has had a bad effect on his signature and his disposition.  Read and enjoy.

Handwritten sign by the cashier’s window at Booked Up #1 in Archer City, Tx.

Yesterday, I mentioned Lonesome Dove, the popular novel by Texas writer Larry McMurtry.  Do you know about “Booked Up”, his bookstore in Archer City, Texas?  McMurtry aptly calls it a book ranch.  The entire spread consists of four buildings, covering four separate blocks of the town square in Archer City, population less than 2,000.  If a single book is like a head of cattle, then this “ranch” has nearly a half-million “head”.   This entry is based on notes from my first visit there in January 2004.

For anyone who loves books, the first time at the book ranch can be overwhelming.  You don’t know where to start.  You can start with the cat.  Just inside the door of the main building, Booked Up #1, you enter a front room, somewhat bigger than your average tract home living room, stuffed with antique furniture, various ephemera and old books.  A fat gray and white cat padded over to me, looked up and meowed a welcome.  A Walmart greeter couldn’t have done it better.

Larry’s office is to the left when you enter the front room.  I have not met him, and I am told that his office hours vary.  As for the business of not signing books, I am given to understand that he still signs books now and then, just not as regular as he used to.  A fellow who used to buy books from Larry for re-sell in his own bookstore (now closed), told me that Larry is “kind of cranky, like any public person who gets tired of the same questions all the time.”  Basically, I think Larry just prefers being left to enjoy his bookstore (which he began from his own huge private collection) and his privacy.  So be it.

Larry McMurtry’s place is pretty much the last word in used bookstores in Texas.  Building #2 is across the street from #1.  Building #3 is down the street on the left and building #4 is around the corner, on the right, across from the courthouse.  The courthouse was built in 1891, a Romanesque revival style, constructed of locally quarried brown sandstone.  On the courthouse lawn, there stands a veterans memorial (also sandstone, I think) listing everyone from Archer county who fought in all U.S. wars going back to the Civil War.  A separate historical marker tells you that, every so often, Jesse James used to hide out in Archer City, when he wore out his welcome elsewhere.

Each building of the book ranch is arranged, more or less, by category—history, non-fiction, fiction, children’s books, rare books, art books, foreign books and old magazines.  But this arrangment is rather loose, as I found books of all categories in each building.  No one knows exactly how many books they stock.  I did a quick sampling in one smaller building and figured that, in this one building, there are about 390 bookcases, each one with ten shelves.  Altogether, all four buildings combined, I am estimating there are 2,000 bookcases crammed with books—not counting stacks on tables and on the floor– leading to an estimation of nearly 500,000 books in stock.  I saw only two or three people working there.  And the two courtesy cats.  Greeter cat lies by the front door and maintains a professional dignity.  In the back, an equally fat, black and white cat roams the aisles, purring and meowing as if to ask if you need any help.  Roaming cat appreciates having her chin scratched. 

True to the easy-going culture of West Texas, Booked Up operates pretty much on an honor system.  In buildings 2, 3 and 4, you are on your own to walk in and out, unattended and unwatched.  Bag up your books and bring them back to building 1 to pay.  There is only one place to pay for your books—a small, cluttered cashier’s window in one corner of the front room of building #1, where a pretty, dark-haired young woman takes your money or your card and handwrites a ticket.   In their “rare book room” (building 2) a sign says you are supposed to be accompanied by a staff member, but with no one around I just strolled in.  I was tempted to ask the cashier what would keep someone from driving off with an armload of unpaid-for books—but asking out loud seemed, well, not right, like asking your hostess what would prevent you from stealing her silverware. 

Building 1 is the largest of the four builidings—much bigger than it looks from the outside.  In the front room, the cashier pointed to a side-door that leads to the back.  I walked through that door, and it was like walking into bibliophile heaven.  A huge warehouse of books!  Wall to wall, floor to ceiling, the place was filled with books.  The best thing to do in a place this big is to keep notes about where you found books you might like to look at later, because otherwise you probably will not find them again.  There really isn’t a system you can follow—forget alphabetizing by author—just pick a general category, survey the lot and see what you can find.  This is not your paperback place—you won’t find a bag of books for a buck.  What I saw were mostly high-quality hardbacks and old books.  The lowest price was $10, but the most common is $20 and some sets sell for $100. 

I found a book which I had last seen almost twenty years ago in Austin, but hadn’t been able to find since then:  a book of the collected conversations of Lord Byron—“Unbelievably rude, charmingly polite, painfully humble and grossly conceited..” says the jacket flap.  $30.  One thing I have noticed about used books—Larry McMurtry himself said it best in an article I found online, “…the lesson of bookselling is that—except with a handful of great rarities—you always see books again, and usually better copies.”

In any case, it will probably be at the book ranch.

One thing more, before closing.  Bookstore cats seem to be a requirement for your better used bookstores—I have found such cats in Austin and Houston.  The first one that I saw was many years ago in Austin at Garner Books, a small bookstore on Guadalupe, across from University of Texas.  Gus was a well-fed, affectionate, black and white cat who perched in the window of the bookstore or sometimes curled up on a table of books.  If he happened to be lying on a book you wanted to look at, well that was just too bad—come back later, after his nap.

Tell me about your neighborhood.  Any bookstores? Coffeeshops?   Or cats?

Please let us know what you think about what we see.