The Book Dealer – Larry McMurtry’s Grand Obsession

Ukiah Valley
Originally appeared in…
The Redwood Coast Review (pdf)

July 17, 2009 Ukiah Valley, Mendocino County, North California

Larry McMurtry is one of the most prolific and successful modern American writers. Primarily a novelist—The Last Picture Show, Terms of Endearment, Lonesome Dove and twenty-seven others—he has also written eight books of essays, a biography, numerous books reviews and, by his count, 70 screenplays (most notably, with Diana Ossana, the Golden Globe and Academy Award winning Brokeback Mountain). But to hear him tell it, in Books: A Memoir, all this scribbling has been merely a sideline to his primary pursuit—the buying and selling of books.

From his early days as a graduate student at Rice University and as a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford—in the famous class with Ken Kesey, Wendell Berry, Peter Beagle and others—McMurtry was in the habit of “book scouting,” prowling local used book shops for bargains he could sell elsewhere at a profit. Malcolm Cowley, a visiting professor at Stanford in the fall of 1960, writes about this in his memoir, The Flower and the Leaf:

“It was a pretty brilliant class that year, including as it did some professional writers already launched on their careers. Larry McMurtry, for instance, was working on what I think was his second novel, Leaving Cheyenne. He was a light, sallow, bespectacled cowboy who wore Texas boots and spoke in a pinched variety or the West Texas drawl. . . . Larry supplemented his Stanford fellowship by finding rare books on the ten-cent tables of Salvation Army outlets and reselling them to dealers; Book Prices Current was his bible.”

Over the years, this habit became an occupation and a business. In 1970, with partner Marcia Carter, McMurtry opened Booked Up, in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D. C. This store would operate for the next 35 years, until ever rising rents forced a move. With the Welsh book village of Hay-on-Wye as a model, McMurtry moved his inventory to his old hometown, Archer City, Texas. Book lovers who visit there today can browse 300,000 books at several locations, and a lucky few may even get to see McMurtry’s private 28,000 volume library at his nearby home. Writes the author, now in his early seventies, “Forming that library, and reading it, is surely one of the principal achievements of my life.”

In Books, all this history—“the many stages of my life as a reader-writer-bookman”—along with plenty of anecdotes, tidbits and gossip about books and book people, is told in an offhand, conversational manner, in 109 short, readable chapters. McMurtry explains the method which has made him so successful as writer and book dealer: “My method of writing a novel 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. . . . I was studying for a doctorate in English, but I didn’t have to get it, and the reason I didn’t was that I had the energy to get up early and write those five pages.” Finishing his writing work early enabled him to spend the rest of the day in bookstores. In this way his dual career proceeded.

Those five page installments added up to some very good early novels, among them Horseman, Pass By (which was made into the movie Hud), and the somewhat autobiographical All My Friends Are Going to be Strangers, which contains hilarious passages set in Texas, and in California among a group of “New Americans” based loosely on Kesey and company. (I love this novel but have always thought it would be better titled “You Can’t Go Home Again Until Semester Break” or possibly “Danny Deck in Search of What.”)

For “energy” some might read “Type A personality.” McMurtry might be thought of as the Woody Allen of modern writers—a new book every year. As with Allen’s movies, it has become somewhat difficult to keep up, and his later work doesn’t always match the quality of his early efforts. In particular, post-Lonesome Dove, many of McMurtry’s novels have taken on a facile quality which makes them quick, forgettable reads. The four books in the “Berrybender” series are a good example of this, light western entertainments in which the characters have no depth. He all but admits as much in discussing the development of his two careers:

One reason I’ve hung on to bookselling is that it’s progressive—the opposite of writing, pretty much. Eventually all novelists, if they persist too long, get worse. No reason to name names, since no one is spared. Writing great fiction involves some combination of energy and imagination that cannot be energized and realized forever. Strong talents can simply exhaust their gifts, and they do.

Book selling, though, being based on acquired knowledge, is progressive. At least, that seems to be the case with the great dealers. The longer they deal and the more they know, the better books they handle.

I can think of some exceptions. Oakley Hall had an excellent late run with his five Ambrose Bierce detective novels and Love and War in California, octogenarian Elmore Leonard is still writing strong novels, and Wendell Berry’s recent fiction has not diminished in quality. But it’s a point well taken.

McMurtry’s career, early and late, presents a viable model and alternative to the many writers who graduate from university writing programs and find themselves stuck in teaching careers that hinder their efforts to get their writing done. As he points out in Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen, which covers some of the same ground as Books, writing and teaching involve similar energies, whereas writing and bookselling can be complementary and mutually informing. Whether one agrees wholly with this view or not, it is worthwhile for writers to consider careers outside of academia to help support the writing habit. Another model worth considering is collaboration. Some of McMurtry’s best later work, the novels Pretty Boy Floyd and Zeke and Ned, and the already mentioned screenplay, have been done with writing partner Diana Ossana.

Success as artist and businessman has not been without its price. McMurtry admits to stretches of depression, and he developed serious heart health problems, leading to quadruple bypass surgery in 1991. The sketch of his life offered in Books remains a bit murky. He’s in San Francisco; he’s in Houston; he’s in L. A.; he’s in Tucson; he’s in Washington, D. C. Transitional details are mostly lacking. We also never learn much about his love life or domestic life. He was married to Jo Scott, but that ended in divorce in 1966. He lived with their son James—now an Austin-based singer-songwriter—in a D.C. suburb for a number of years. Not that a book about books should necessarily be autobiography, but in McMurtry’s case, with his relative fame in mind, the few details he does give leave the reader wanting more.

There are details provided about antiquarian bookselling, auctions, auction catalogs and the private libraries of the monied elite that may not be of interest to all readers. Some of the arcana of the book trade is certainly over my head. But, as with secondhand stores, one person’s junk is another’s treasure. The reader can pick and choose, and most will find plenty of gems. Maybe it’s shop talk, but for readers and book people it’s very interesting shop talk. McMurtry’s enthusiasm for all things bookish will make most readers value their own books more, and want to get out and browse used book stores.

There is a good section of several chapters recounting book scouting in Northern California in the 1960s. McMurtry credits San Francisco poet David Meltzer, who worked part-time at Discovery Bookstore, next to City Lights in North Beach, with turning him on to the term “book scout” and introducing him to the Bay Area scene. There are anecdotes about bookstores and book people in San Francisco, the East Bay and the South Bay, with digressions about bookstores in Austin, Houston, Dallas, New York, Cincinnati and the Isle of Wight. It’s a lovely bit of time travel to these bookstores past, a bit triste because all but a few are now gone.

Reviewing this book in The New York Review of Books, Michael Dirda found the tone to be overwhelmingly nostalgic and melancholy. It did not strike me that way. (The tone is certainly a good deal lighter than Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen, in which the author ponders the aftereffects of heart bypass surgery as he meditates on the death of storytelling.) Real estate prices, gas prices and internet bookselling have forced most big urban bookstores out of existence. Booksellers are adapting in various ways. In McMurtry’s case, as with Powell’s in Portland, they are getting bigger, buying up the stock of former colleagues and competitors. In other cases they are getting smaller and/or finding niches. McMurtry’s presentation of these facts seemed to me more anthropologically detached than melancholy. It was encouraging to learn about people who, in these days of tweet and twitter, are passionately involved with books and literature. I came away feeling—as McMurtry puts it nicely in one of the essays in Sacagawea’s Nickname—that it is still “possible to organize one’s life around literature.”

It will be interesting to see if his mega bookstore in a small town can survive for long. After all, the flip side of high urban rents is the large population base. I had to look in my road atlas to find out where Archer City, pop. 1848, is located. If you go northwest from Fort Worth a hundred miles or so you will find it, on Highway 79. I can’t remember ever being through that way, and don’t anticipate making Archer City a primary destination any time soon. But one never knows. One of these days I may find myself in north Texas with a little time to kill. It would be interesting to walk around the town where The Last Picture Show was filmed, maybe stop for a dip cone at the Dairy Queen, and then look for something good to read.

Over the years Marcia and I did a certain amount of appraising. Sometimes it was just work, but sometimes it had interesting results.

One day we were out in northwest Washington, appraising a library that had a lot of good ballooning books in it.

At some point I picked up a hefty book called The Whale, our old friend Moby-Dick under its English title. The Whale is usually found in three volumes, published by the venerable firm of Bentley.

The fat creature I held in my hand was the whole Whale, but it appeared from a note in the book that this copy had been the working copy of the once acclaimed, now forgotten author Charles Reade, famous for The Cloister and the Hearth, whose job was to edit The Whale down to a handier and possibly more salable one-volume edition.

We were unable to buy this book, but we did note that Charles Reade was not a man to be intimidated by a mere American classic.

He began his editorial work by drawing a bold line through “Call me Ishmael.” -DB

Books: A Memoir by Larry McMurtry. Simon & Schuster, 2008.

Sacagawea’s Nickname: Essays on the American West. Simon & Schuster, 2001.

Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen: Reflections at Sixty and Beyond. Simon & Schuster, 1999.

The Flower and the Leaf: A Contemporary Record of American Writing Since 1941 by Malcolm Cowley, edited by Donald W. Faulkner. Viking, 1985.
Image Credit: Photograph by Michael O’Brien for The New York Times