A Great Day for Books

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Michael Paulsen/Houston Chronicle/AP Images
Larry McMurtry during the ‘Last Book Sale’ at his bookstore in Archer City, Texas, August 2012

In a summer when the shoreline temperature in the Little Arkansas River reached 98 degrees—bad news for catfish—should I really have attempted to bring a bunch of citified northerners into the heart of the heart of the heat, which peaked locally at 116?

Well, yes. It’s just weather, as my popular hero Captain Woodrow Call often said if he heard a complaint.

So I threw a book sale. Upward of 300,000 books went on sale in Archer City at public auction, which was conducted by the crackerjack team of Addison and Sarova out of Macon, Georgia, where I gather the heat is wet rather than dry.

Calling it the Last Book Sale was a conceit based on the fact that my novel The Last Picture Show had been filmed on the same site. In fact, the reputable firm of Bonham’s is conducting a major literary auction on the West Coast right now. Our auction was probably the last on this scale I will be involved with.

I’ve been an active book dealer for fifty-five years, and one thing I’ve learned to avoid is the adjective “rare.” Poe’s Tamerlane exists in twelve known copies. It’s rare and so are his stories; but most books aren’t rare. What I sold, over two days in August, were second-hand books—or antiquarian books, if you want to fancy it up. I’ve owned most of them more than once in my career, although many of them are now at least uncommon.

My firm, Booked Up Inc., owns about 400,000 books, spread among four large buildings in Archer City, a small oil-patch town in the midwestern part of Texas. I also have a 28,000-volume personal library, in the same town. I’m getting old and so are my buildings. My heirs are literate but not bookish. Dealing with nearly half a million books would be a huge burden for them: thus the downsizing.

Still, deciding to have this sale went beyond the practical. For one thing I wanted to test the vigor, or lack of it, of the book trade as we have it. Dealers in old books are a subculture, one I’ve been part of for a very long time. Is that subculture still there? Are there still young people piling books in their garages, hoping to have a real shop someday? I didn’t know. Calling for the auction was a way to find out.

The day before the auction I was eating breakfast at the local café (The Wildcat) and was more than mildly surprised to be told by three different local folks that they all planned to register (cost: fifty bucks) to bid at the auction. What? Bid at the auction? None of them, that I could recall, had ever even been in one of the …

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