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Book Town in the Middle of Nowhere

Texas FM Highways 25 and 79
Archer City, Texas

Remember used bookstores? They seemed to have just vanished. I'm surprised now when I stumble on one of those great cluttered book storefronts down some urban street, find myself wandering in and wandering out hours later, smiling, discoveries under my arm.

So this boggled my mind: A dusty small Texas town full of them? This I had to see. A few years back, I'd heard that Texas literary icon Larry McMurtry (Lonesome Dove et al) had returned to his tiny hometown (population 1,848) at the intersection of two Farm to Market country roads in Northwest Texas, and brought his used book and "bookscouting" business with him. I had lived in a town like Archer City. They dot the state, county market centers created by 19th century farmers and cowmen after the Indian problem was handled. They float now, in the middle of nowhere, boarded up, dusty, damn lonesome and a touch sad. Where the only cafe is a Dairy Queen out by the city limit sign. A place to be from, but not a place to be. Yet after the extra three hour drive from Dallas, through mind-numbing West Texas mesquite prairie, past the Archer City city limits, past the Dairy Queen on the outskirts of town, what I saw was as surreal as a West Texas mirage.

Bookstores. Everywhere: Near the old theater that inspired the book and film, "The Last Picture Show." Across from the First Baptist Church. Down from the county title company, the lone gas station, the ramshackle grocery, the ancient courthouse with the District Champs 1969 sign rusting out front, and the tractor supply/gift shop where old men play dominos. Thousands and thousands of books, close to half a million and counting (stated goal: one million). Four buildings full out of no more than ten; storefronts resurrected, full of white, bright shelves, lovingly, carefully filled.

Bldg #1: First editions. Western Pulp Fiction, Painfully Boring Titles
Bldg #2: Poetry, World History, Fiction
Bldg #3: 18th and 19th century books, Classical Studies, Philosophy
Bldg #4: Ancient History, Religion, Travel
SIGN: "Please take selections to Bldg #1 to buy."

Even the garage area was a feast for the eyes, three walls packed ceiling to floor with mounds of unpacked books, its back wall a garage door from past building incarnations, open to the great outdoors.
Which was where I bumped right into Larry McMurtry, heaving books in his undershirt. He glanced around with the look of a deer in headlights. Me, I squelched the wide-eyed surprise of finding him so abruptly in front of me.

"Amazing seeing so many books, way out here," I mumbled.

"Well, this is home," he answered. "And it's cheap."

I had brought one of his less-famous book of essays with me, Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen (Opening line: "In the Archer City Dairy Queen, while nursing a lime Dr. Pepper...I opened a book called 'Illuminations,' and read Walter Benjamin's essay, 'The Story Teller'").

For the fun of it, I had read it stopping at Dairy Queens along the Texas backroads way there from DFW airport. I told him I'd come from Chicago (where I lived at the time), grew up in Texas, chose this book for the trip down, and would he do me the honor of signing it to memorialize the trek?

He eyed me over those big, thick glasses of his, then informed me he'd just written a long article about why he didn't sign books anymore, about how his hand had given out after 30,000 signings and about how his consciousness had been raised concerning signed books devaluing the words inside. "There's a sign by the door." He pointed.

I looked around. There it was:

We no longer sell books by Larry McMurtry. He's not signing books at this time.

I gulped down the chagrin, and made an attempt to hide the book behind me.

He relaxed, took the book and signed it, telling me not to tell. (Sorry, Mr. McMurtry, guess I'm finally telling.) I assured him I valued the words even as I knew it was already more: it was now proof of this certain Texas mirage, now the author and his booktown. A souvenir. He was right. Nothing I could do about it.

I saw two people that afternoon, a used bookbuyer from New York City in Booked Up #1, (Religion) and a strangely familiar woman in Booked Up #3, (Philosophy). Otherwise, I had the buildings to myself, communing for hours with old books and the aura of past lives, past owners, that make owning used books so grand. I overheard McMurtry asking his assistant to make sure they have a lunch of some sort set up for his friends, "since they're probably tired of the Dairy Queen's taco salads."

That strangely familiar woman in Booked Up #3? Susan Sontag, a longtime McMurtry friend, as if conjured from her books on the shelf above her. And the mirage grew larger.

What does this all say for travel, for Dairy Queens, for the pull of "home" and the power of print, even in the middle of nowhere? I still had a three hour drive back to the world, time enough for such thoughts. Booked Up's website now has a notice about the antiquarian book business being in peril. It's true, of course, but the way I felt among them all, discovering a scribbled margin note or a faded name inside the cover...the lives all those books had touched that were now somehow touching me...that feeling can't disappear. An object is considered an antique after it is a century old, but an old book seems more, not just an object, or even just the words any longer. It seems a melding of a writer's imagination bound and a reader's love captured. Antiques that human don't vanish easily. At least not if Larry McMurtry has a thing to say about it, and how can you not love him for that?

For the moment, I stood in Building #4, and browsed the travel section. I found a travel guide from 1929, A Satchel Guide to Europe, 52nd edition.

Inside the front cover, in exquisite penmanship, were these words:

Ida Righter Downing, London, England, 1935
Sailed from New York, 7/13/35 on the "Georgia"
Sailed from Liverpool, 8/10/35 on the "Corinthian"

And I was transported to a passenger liner in the 1930s.

From the middle of nowhere.

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