Archer City. I was thinking I ought to go, but then I kept thinking it was a bad time: too much coming up that I had to prepare for. But "The Last Book Sale" was happening and then it would be over, and I would regret having missed it. Larry McMurtry’s auction of hundreds-of-thousands of books from three of his four buildings of books situated in the heart of tiny Archer City, Texas, was certainly going to be an event, and we felt like somebody from Half Price Books really had to be there, whether we bought any books or not.
It got down to the wire before I started moving things around, making arrangements to go. I made sure that Joe Madden, the Flagship store’s longtime collectibles expert, was able to accompany me. We had worked together since the early nineties and I knew he wouldn’t want to miss the auction, and I valued his book opinions and experience. Turns out, we didn’t get a chance to draw on our book experience after all.
The two-day auction began at 10 a.m. on Friday, August 10, in Building No. 4 of the Booked Up conglomerate. Joe and I had set out at 6:30 in the morning to drive up from Dallas in time to register as bidders. We hoped to spend the hour before the bidding, and as much time during the bidding as possible, looking over the lots of books. There were lots and lots of lots, most consisting of one shelf-column of books. Well, it seems that the week-long preview period had ended the day before, so we would have no opportunity to scope out the good stuff; we would be going into the auction blind. If we wanted to bid on any books, it would have to be the luck of the draw. We figured that the auctioneer would at least note the subject category of each grouping that came up for bidding, but he had so many lots of books to sell that he plowed through, providing only the lot number.
Joe and I had gotten good seats in the overflowing space that had been carved out between bookshelves. (The planners hadn’t anticipated that more than 150 people would register to bid, and most bidders had guests; there was also the constant presence of newsfolks with cameras and microphones.) As the auctioneer launched into things and we fully grasped the idea that, if we were to bid it would be a shot in the dark, I leaned over to Joe and asked, "How shall we choose which lot to bid on?" Joe asked, "How old are you?" I replied and immediately understood that we would be making a bid on lot 58. We got it, for $150. I figured we could get two lots’ worth of books into my minivan, so I decided that we could bid on one additional lot, the one whose number corresponded with Joe’s age. We got that one, too, for $250. No idea what kinds of books HPB now owned, but we hoped for the best, and now we could say we’d been involved in a true book event! At lunch-break time, we went over to check it out, and we’d done all right: mostly oversized books on ships and sailing, military gear and fancy cars. We paid and loaded up and just absorbed the atmosphere for a while.
We ran into JT, whose blog celebrates "pretty books wherever they are." She successfully bid on some of the "Books on Books" books. We talked to various dealers who had traveled in from out of state — Mississippi, Pennsylvania and beyond — to bid on books. A few had attended just to get one specific book or another from the "McMurtry 100" — a selection of special titles McMurtry picked out to be auctioned individually.
Mr. McMurtry was there, of course, and said a few words at the outset to thank everyone for coming to West Texas in August. As he walked off, he said, “Buy some books.” Half Price Books had bought large quantities of books from McMurtry several times, books that didn’t fit into his mix (or his space availability) but settled nicely into our inventory. (In an interview long ago, McMurtry had referred to us as a "less judicious bookstore." We took that as a compliment.) We’d always found Larry McMurtry to be gracious, soft-spoken and friendly. The auctioneer echoed our sentiments.
On our drive in, Joe had mentioned Larry McMurtry had married Ken Kesey’s widow, Faye. She was there, too, staying around quite a bit longer than McMurtry himself, smiling upon the proceedings. I stood behind her, wondering what it was like to have married two of the great men of American literature. As an example of the kind of serendipity booklovers relish, I had just the day before bought a copy of Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, after hearing that one of our stores had recently bought an uncorrected proof of this classic about Ken Kesey and The Merry Pranksters, and I had never read the paperback copy I had back in the 70s. When I got home from our Archer City journey, I began reading the book, prompted by Joe’s comment. Right there on page nine was a reference to correspondence between Ken Kesey and his friend Larry McMurtry, and then, on page 27, Wolfe introduces "Kesey’s wife Faye…one of the prettiest, most beatific-looking women I ever saw."
What will happen to Booked Up, shrunk from four buildings to Building No.1? What will happen to Archer City, a town that previously contained about 500 books per citizen? I think Archer City and Booked Up will remain a mecca for booklovers. The Last Book Sale is a testament to the lure and lore of the ink-on-paper, real book. A little town full of books drew a great many folks from far and wide. Some came because it was Larry McMurtry and some came to stock bookstores, but most, I’m sure, came for both reasons. We love being around books and honor this author who is also a fellow book gatherer. Let’s hope Larry McMurtry was satisfied with the sale and let’s hope things continue, in some way, shape or form, in Archer City.