Farewell to My Favorite Used Bookstore

From Waco it takes about three and a half hours to get to Archer City, Texas, home of Larry McMurtry’s legendary Booked Up. This is my favorite used bookstore in America.

Last weekend, McMurtry, the celebrated western novelist and author, most famously, of Lonesome Dove, auctioned off two-thirds of his inventory, mostly to aspiring used booksellers. Happily, Booked Up will continue to operate on a smaller scale. Not that it will be very small, even now: after selling 300,000 books, McMurtry still has about 150,000  left. He plans to house those books in one building, instead of the four large buildings that had previously housed the stock and taken up much of greater downtown Archer City.

McMurtry, who hails from Archer City, opened the store in 1988, relocating stock from used bookstores he had operated elsewhere. I’ve visited the store about five times.

Much of the pleasure of going to Booked Up was the trip itself. A friend and I would take the interstate part of the way up, but then it was Texas state highways across the sun-baked prairie to Archer City. I knew we were getting close when we passed through Jacksboro, Texas, which historian William Brackney once identified as one of two towns in America that still had a Two-Seed-in-the-Spirit Predestinarian Baptist church.

Lately the only local lunch option seemed to be the Wildcat Cafe, which we loved. Brisket or chicken-fried steak were standard options, of course. (It’s also one of the last places I remember going in America that did not offer a non-smoking section.)

The stock at Booked Up was of uniformly high quality, and prices were not cheap. McMurtry knew what he had, and what it was worth. I actually have bought relatively few books there, befitting my fresh-out-of grad school mindset of the early visits. The stock was also, frankly, out of control — most disappointingly for me, the American history section was almost all spine-up on the floor. Vast stretches of books were simply unsorted.

Sometimes Mr. McMurtry himself would be there. I talked to him once. I am sure he must get tired of visitors speaking to him, but he was gracious.

On the way back we’d usually take a different route, all state highways. The standard stop for dinner was the Koffee Kup in Hico. For me, this meant fried chicken livers, pies with six-inch tall meringues, and waitresses who call you “hon'”. (Most recently we also tried the original Hard 8 Bar-B-Que in Stephenville, where you order the meat — brisket, ribs, sausage — directly from the pit master.)

As you can tell, my fondness for Booked Up has a lot to do with my fondness for  Texas. I’m glad I can still go back.

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  • I share the author’s fondness for the journey to Archer City. Recently I traveled the Farm-to-Market roads up from Dallas to see the legendary bookstore before the great sale. It is somehow restorative to know that there are places filled to the rafters with valuables far from the knowing crowds. McMurtry has been lamenting the passing of such places ever since he saw the death of the Last Picture Show (a haunting ruin now on the town square). But for all the lamentation, something authentic persists.

    3 of the bookstores were closed when I got there for cataloging and I thought I had missed my chance to see them. Before I found the main store (Booked Up #1) I wandered into the old County Jail, now the Archer County Museum. In that substantial, un-air-conditioned, frankly creepy place were Texas kitsch and treasures scattered among open cells with peeling paint where drunks and punks used to languish. But there was substance and history among the ruins. Is it too much to say that America and Texas felt real in that place? Probably so. But there is so much unreality in the world today that it is good to know that a place like Archer City still exists.

  • Book stores fill me with melancholy. Used book stores even more. While I love amazon, I mourn the passing of so many awesome little bookstores.

    Great piece.

  • thanks, Alex, I heartily agree.

  • yes, indeed. as the NYT piece noted, some stores are making the adjustment to the world of amazon, but as with so many good local things, sometimes we just have to shell out a couple more dollars at the used bookstore we love, even when we know we could get it cheaper on amazon.

  • Bob Wiley

    There are thousands of delightful places in “flyover country.” Thanks for introducing me to another one.