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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 stores, much less bought a book. What were they going to bid on, and why? (I never found out.)

I have seen a lot of various levels of book-dealing and am hard to surprise. The sale was on a Friday and Saturday; on the Wednesday previous there were the beginnings of a media storm. For three days I gave continuous interviews. Building 1, the one we’re not selling, soon filled to the brim. Quite a few of the curious public, finding themselves in a bookstore, bought a book; in most cases, they claimed, it was a book they had been looking for for decades. Yep, that’s the point of our kind of bookshop.

On Thursday morning, much to my relief, the prominent dealers began to show up. Powell’s showed up from Oregon and Between the Covers from New Jersey. We had the beginnings of a national grid and soon filled it in with dealers from Wisconsin (two), Tampa, San Francisco, Culver City, Natchez, Austin, and Magnolia, Arkansas. In all nearly two hundred bidders came. Local merchants, despite the heat, were enjoying unprecedented cash flow. The café stayed open till 9 PM, the library made computer hookups available, and the visitor’s center supplied free water and a much-needed bathroom. The sheriff suggested we buy misters to cool folks down a little; but we didn’t. My son and grandson, musicians both, performed to a full house.

The auction comprised 1,600 lots of about two hundred books each. Only a handful of lots, in the first four hundred, failed to sell. Dealers, well primed by then, were soon trading books with one another, which is as it should be.

The star item on the first day was the typescript of some twenty-nine story-ettes of an erotic nature. These had been commissioned in the 1940s by an oilman in Ardmore, Oklahoma; among the writers who wrote these trifles were Henry Miller, Anaïs Nin, Lawrence Durrell, and others. The late G. Legman knew the oilman’s name but never revealed it. I have owned this curiosity for more than twenty years; it went to Between the Covers for $2,750.

The best of what we were selling was in Building 2: art, poetry, history—much history and odds and ends, reference books, and fiction—much, much fiction, English and American, from the last seventy-five years; authors of some importance and authors of no importance.

Everything sold but the fiction. Everyone who deals in fiction has plenty, and more is spilling onto the market from the sale of the Serendipity Bookshop stock now being dispersed on the West Coast.

Many people asked me if I was sad to see so many books go. I wasn’t—mainly I was irritated to discover that I still had 30,000 novels to sell.

Still, I had seeded the clouds and caused some freshets to sprinkle on the American book trade. Probably the Midtown Scholar, in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, bought the most (1,500 boxes), but Powell’s took home 450 boxes and Between the Covers more than five hundred. Caitlin and Eric Stuart, of The Full Nelson, in Magnolia, Arkansas, a hop, skip, and jump from where Bill Clinton grew up, were happy to get 157 boxes and they plan to come back for more. Power to the young dealers!

And the weather is still just weather, as Captain Call insisted.

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