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The Treasure Hunter

Memoirs are inherently wistful, but Larry McMurtry’s reminiscences of his life with books—not as a novelist but as a reader, book scout, and bookstore owner—are especially valedictory. Nearly every page sounds a note of farewell, of stoic, weary resignation, of time running out. While McMurtry’s voice remains modest, low-key, and immensely sympathetic, no amount of charm can disguise a pervasive melancholy in his pages. As he says, “A bookman’s love of books is a love of books, not merely of the information in them.” But, he fears, the age of eagerly turned pages is passing:

Today the sight that discourages book people most is to walk into a public library and see computers where books used to be. In many cases not even the librarians want books to be there. What consumers want now is information, and information increasingly comes from computers.

That is a preference I can’t grasp, much less share, though I’m well aware that computers have many valid uses. They save lives, and they make research in most cases a thing that’s almost instantaneous.

They do many good things.

But they don’t really do what books do, and why should they usurp the chief function of a public library, which is to provide readers access to books? Books can accommodate the proximity of computers but it doesn’t seem to work the other way around. Computers now literally drive out books from the place that should, by definition, be books’ own home: the library.

Books, McMurtry’s new memoir, covers some of the same ground as his much-loved Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen (1999). In those earlier “reflections at sixty and beyond” the novelist frequently discussed his life as a reader-writer-bookman. In essence, Books supplements those pages, even while repeating some of the same stories and arguments. But McMurtry’s prose is now looser, more rambling; he even calls his writing “prattle” and sometimes worries that he’s just telling “fish stories” of interest only to other book dealers and collectors. He may be partially right. Much of the time he simply alludes to one defunct bookstore after another and seldom spends enough time giving real narrative life to his friends, rivals, and colleagues in the trade. Too often Books just feels spotty and hit-or-miss. Yet despite its imperfections, a good many readers will nonetheless enjoy every page.

Like so much of Larry McMurtry’s writing, Books begins and ends in Archer City, the hardscrabble Texas town where he was born and where he now owns what he refers to as a mansion and several bookstores. He didn’t start out as a reader by any means. Cattle ranching was the family business—“McMurtry Means Beef”—and there were virtually no books in the house. As a consequence, young Larry grew up hearing rather than reading stories. But one day in 1942, a cousin on his way to war left the twelve-year-old a box of cheap adventure fiction from the 1930s. The titles were, he recalls, “on the order of Jerry Todd in the Whispering Cave or Poppy Ott and the Stuttering Parrot. The first book I actually read was an adventure involving the Canadian Mounties, called Sergeant Silk: The Prairie Scout.” In truth, what could have better suited a dreamy boy than just such wonderful trash? After all, real readers always read for excitement; only the nature of that excitement changes through life. The immensely learned man of letters Guy Davenport discovered his vocation when a South Carolina neighbor lent him a novel about Tarzan.

Soon, young McMurtry was visiting newsstands and drugstores in Wichita Falls (where his father attended weekly livestock auctions there), picking up paperbacks of Mickey Spillane’s I, the Jury and anything else that caught his wandering eye. For a long time, he tells us, “getting the books I wanted to read was the main reason for the pursuit.” But the passion for words on the page grew and grew. “I never wanted to be without books I wanted to read, and if I could be reading four or five books at the same time, so much the better.”

Eventually, McMurtry went off to Rice University, then North Texas State University, married, finished his first novel (Horseman, Pass By, filmed as Hud starring Paul Newman), received a Stegner writing fellowship to Stanford, and worked desultorily on his second book (Leaving Cheyenne). “My method of writing a novel,” he tells us, “was, from the first, to get up early and dash off five pages of narrative. That is still my method, though now I dash off ten pages a day. I write every day, ignoring holidays and weekends.” Once he’d put in his daily stint—at a typewriter both then and now—McMurtry would go out scouting for treasures in the used bookstores of San Francisco and the Bay Area. As McMurtry’s antiques-collecting hero in Cadillac Jack says, the scout’s mantra is “anything can be anywhere.”

A word more about scouting.

People commonly imagine that “bookmen” are shy, harmless folk, absentminded, with thick glasses, sporting tweeds and smoking briar pipes. Not scouts. Go to any big, well-advertised charity or antiquarian book fair just before it opens. If you wander to the front of the immensely long line—full of people with sturdy L.L. Bean canvas bags and carts of various kinds—you will notice men with lean and hungry looks. In buckskin, they might pass for gunslingers out of McMurtry’s own Lonesome Dove. A few might also be built like fullbacks or rugby players, and probably answer to the name Tiny. These are book scouts, men—and they are virtually all men—who roam the world’s estate sales and church bazaars, thrift stores, antique shops, and auction houses, who check out the books for sale in libraries and even those used as accent pieces in furniture departments. They live by their knowledge and their wits and their persistence. It’s as hardscrabble a life as any in a Texas cowtown.

In many cases, scouts will have traveled hundreds of miles for a big sale and then camped out overnight so as to be among the first people in line. When the doors open, they will run, not walk, to the categories where the high-end collectibles might lurk, to the tables marked “Rare,” “Modern Firsts,” “Art and Photography,” “Vintage.” Being at the front of the line may give them only a few seconds’ advantage, but that’s all a professional often needs. Sometimes, though, things can get tense, or even ugly. I once saw a serious fistfight break out over the Olympia Press first edition of Lolita.

For many years, Larry McMurtry was one of the best scouts in the country. In later life, according to Washington, D.C., lore, he used to hire an impecunious college student to camp out at the big local sales for him. Then, just before the doors opened to the ravening hordes, he would waltz in and take his factotum’s place in line. People would sometimes gripe. But scouting isn’t a profession for gentlemen.

Scouts,” writes McMurtry “are the seed carriers, a vital link to the food chain of book selling. They have the time—as most dealers don’t—to inspect junk shops and visit yard sales. At a yard sale in Tucson a complete run of Melville first editions turned up, and it included The Whale. They had all been rebound, with the original covers bound in”—note the professional’s eye for detail—“but even so, they made a book scout’s day.”

San Francisco was always cold and gray, and McMurtry missed the sunshine, so he, his wife, and newborn son moved back to Texas, this time to Austin. There the young novelist and bookman became friends with Franklin Gilliam and Anthony Newnham, the proprietors of the famous Brick Row Book Shop, “surely the best bookshop in Texas at that time.” McMurtry’s affection for these two men brings out some of the best writing in his memoir:

Franklin Gilliam, originally from Texas (Cuero), was born out of his place and his age; he was meant to sit in his club, read The Times of London, occasionally look out the window and say “harrumph!” He was especially fond of trains. With his teammate, Anthony, he was, for a time, able to arrange long, cozy buying trips, always by train, across America, Canada, and the British Isles.

Anthony Newnham, by contrast, was a Byronic Englishman who, in the fullness of time, married something like nine women; these unions produced I don’t know how many children. With the onset of pregnancy Anthony’s interest in a given wife was likely to go into sharp decline…. Anthony knew nineteenth-century English books and autographs as well as any dealer I’ve known. For a time he had his own bookshop on the Isle of Wight, but he allowed Franklin to move him to Austin, where he produced a string of excellent catalogues with a heavy emphasis on the nineteenth century. Anthony was a very disciplined man, and energetic to an extreme, whereas his partner, Franklin, liked to wander around in his bathrobe drinking tea all morning, after which he would get dressed and amble off to a leisurely lunch; then he might catalogue a few books for his long a-building Southern catalogue, have a martini, and proceed to a long dinner, during which, well into the second or third bottle of wine, he would usually nod off….

Anthony Newnham tended mainly to marry against type. His first wife, I am told, was a proper English housewife—thus, in America, he usually went for wild, drug-taking motorcycle girls…. He was a very attractive man, even though, for a time, he had no front teeth, these having been knocked out by a cricket ball when he was nine. He lost his bridge and, for some years, didn’t bother to replace it…. All along he kept on marrying and siring children he could not support. Finally he went back to England, a child-support fugitive…. He fell dead, I’m told, while lifting a wineglass to his lips—an ideal exit, all things considered.

By the 1970s bookseller McMurtry had moved to Washington, where he soon opened—with his business partner Marcia Carter—the celebrated Georgetown literary oasis called Booked Up. There it flourished for more than thirty years. In his chapters about Booked Up, McMurtry naturally emphasizes many of the regulars and notables, including Nina Matheson, who formed a fabulous H.G. Wells collection, and her husband William Matheson, chief of rare books at the Library of Congress, who collected novels written by poets. (Even at the most crowded used-book sale the dapper Bill Matheson would wear a conservative suit and tie, while he examined, slowly, meticulously, every volume of poetry and fiction.) The dotty Sheri Martinelli, a former girlfriend of E.E. Cummings and Ezra Pound, hinted that she might be willing to sell her letters from these poets. Wearing her trademark floppy hat, Alice Roosevelt Longworth, Teddy Roosevelt’s daughter, once bought a couple of $2 mysteries. Sometimes McMurtry would glimpse “Pamela Digby Churchill Hayward Harriman accompanying old Governor Averell Harriman on his constitutional. The Harrimans then owned two houses side by side on N street—a house for the art and a house for themselves.” After some social maneuvering, McMurtry bought remnants of the library of Hugh Auchincloss from his widow Janice, mother of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

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