- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 16, 2005

ARCHER CITY, Texas — The two biggest tourist attractions in this tiny West Texas town could disappear within months. Some folks here are concerned. Others couldn’t be less interested.The mayor said simply, “We’ll live through it.”“It may not even happen,” chimed in Bill E. Smith, a trucker who was inhaling a cheeseburger in the town’s popular Dairy Queen. “There’s too much at stake for this town to say goodbye to Larry.”

What Archer residents are debating these days is whether famed author/screenwriter Larry McMurtry will shut down his four huge book warehouses and hoof it off to Arizona.

On Feb. 1, Mr. McMurtry — who arguably made this town famous with his book “The Last Picture Show,” which became a popular 1971 movie — tacked up a one-page note on the stores’ windows.

“I will soon enter my seventieth year and would like to travel a bit before I become too decrepit,” the note said.

He said he planned to shutter the stores Dec. 31, but wouldn’t sell the estimated 400,000 books. “They will stay right there where they are; they can slumber in their majesty until the next turn of the wheel,” he adds in the note.

Within days, several Texas reporters had noted Mr. McMurtry’s terse statement and ventured here to check it out. The author of more than 25 books and 30 screenplays — including Pulitzer Prize-winning “Lonesome Dove” in 1986 — isn’t backing down, but he isn’t completely closing the doors, either.

“I’m just not sure what will happen,” he told The Washington Times last week in an interview at the town’s best bed-and-breakfast, the Lonesome Dove Inn, where he often stays while in Archer City.

He moved back here about seven years ago with a plan in mind — to build his “book town.” He had graduated from high school here, one of 19 members of the class of 1954. But more recently, he said, increasing problems with allergies caused him to move to Tucson, Ariz.

“Then the tsunami came along and Arizona is as wet as it is here,” he said.

Mr. McMurtry operated Booked Up Inc., considered an important Washington antiquarian bookstore, for more than 30 years, but his heart was always back in this Texas town where he grew up. Several years ago — as he continued to buy thousands more books — he began purchasing abandoned buildings along the square in Archer City.

Eventually there were four buildings — remodeled, plain but attractive, housing at least 400,000 books. There were the classics, of course, and first editions of many famous writers, maps, diaries dating back to the early 1800s, poetry, and thousands of biographies and autobiographies.

As he continued to buy up collections — 57,000 from one California estate not two years ago — he personally culled, priced and showcased his stash — hoping that seekers would come search for literary treasures.

He envisioned creating the “book town” concept, where collectors, dealers and aficionados would congregate and keep the rare literacy legacy alive. There have been successful such ventures, he reminded, mentioning Hay-on-Wye in Wales and Stilwell, Minn. “And there’s one in Nevada, a new one,” he said.

But the rare-book market began to wane in early 2001. “I don’t know why,” he said. “I think it’s when the dot-com bubble burst. This was before September 11. And it really hasn’t come back.”

He said he had been pondering why his company sold almost $1 million worth of books in 1996, and only about one-fourth that volume in 2004.

“What happened?” he ventured. “Books have gotten better; they haven’t gotten worse. And it isn’t because I have neglected it, because I was here for several years shaping it up, working every day, opening every box. Obviously it’s not just one factor. It’s a lot of different things.”

The main problems, he said, emanate from the vast chain stores — outfits that sell music, movies and other paraphernalia besides books — and the Internet. “They sell music and movies and therefore they clearly own the young,” Mr. McMurtry said wistfully. “And we don’t have any young. Hardly at all. Our customers are fortyish and up.”

The effect of the Internet is more intangible, he said. “Dealers travel less than they normally would have a decade ago. Normally they would show up here once every year or two, to buy for stock. They don’t do that anymore.”

Mr. McMurtry owns a spacious home here just outside town, but often stays at the Lonesome Dove Inn, within two or three blocks of his stores.

Two Archer City-born sisters who grew up with him, Mary and Ceil Slack, opened the bed-and-breakfast in 1998 and casually offer considerable memorabilia of his career, decor befitting his characterizations and movies and books one can peruse to better track Mr. McMurtry’s literary meanderings.

Mary Slack Webb, a retired school executive, manages the inn, which once was the town’s 14-bed hospital. Ceil, who many old-timers swear was the inspiration for the sexy Jacy Farrow in “The Last Picture Show,” has written several books and lives in Durham, N.C. She and her author husband, Jerry Footlick, visit annually.

Though Mr. McMurtry has been living here much of the past seven years and “The Last Picture Show” and its sequel, “Texasville,” were filmed here, he isn’t a social lion.

“I’m not the town’s most-loved citizen,” he said, “and I don’t think people are crazy about these bookstores.

“But I never depended on people here to make this a success,” he added. “Just never did.”

Archer City, population 1,775, like other small Texas towns, has seen many of its young people leave for opportunities in larger cities. Wichita Falls, about 30 miles north, is perhaps the focal point for many, though Fort Worth is but a two-hour drive and Dallas a few minutes longer.

There is little doubt that Mr. McMurtry is Archer City’s biggest draw; his book empire No. 2. The movie theater depicted in “The Last Picture Show” burned to the ground several years ago. Although citizens partially restored it, it looks little like the movie house etched into popular memories.

Some say Mr. McMurtry’s acknowledgment that he isn’t popular here doesn’t quite say it all, or completely.

“They don’t understand him,” Mrs. Webb said. Some say he is aloof, even snobby. “He just lives his life his own way.”

Mayor Carl Harrelson, 40, runs a restaurant on the same block as one of the four bookstores. He is not a McMurtry fan. “He’ll probably move ‘em and it won’t hurt us too much,” Mr. Harrelson said. “You still got a few oil companies around and such. It might hurt a little bit, but we’re not going to fall off the face of the Earth.”

The mayor mentioned that Mr. McMurtry had written an article unfavorable to the town.

“He was really bashing Archer City. A lot of people didn’t like that,” the mayor added, though he couldn’t recall the article, where it had been printed or exactly what it had said. He said he had never talked to Mr. McMurtry about his plans.

“You never see him,” the mayor said. “Used to be, you’d see him walking down the street with a dolly full of books, but I guess I haven’t seen him in six months or more.” Had he ever visited one of the bookstores?

“No, never have,” the mayor said. He agreed that not too many locals had ventured there either.

Why not? Are Archer City folks not interested in books? “I don’t know, I don’t know,” he replied. “A lot of ‘em, I don’t know. Books are books, I guess.”

But back to the lingering question: His plans. “There’s going to be a parade this summer,” he said, “under the impression it’s their last chance. If it’s a good enough chance, it may not be their last chance. But who knows?”

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