A brief account of my holiday trip to a small Texas town that harbored a sweet, literary surprise.
I rolled into Archer City, Texas, on Christmas day to stay with my girlfriend and her family for a week. The town’s welcome sign, disguised as any normal street sign, boasted a population of around 1800. It’s in northwestern Texas, about thirty minutes south of the significantly larger Wichita Falls. There’s nothing on the road until Archer City, feeling like a hiccup on an indiscriminate southward journey, where cars are forced to a stop at the town’s only traffic light, constantly blinking red at the junction of highways 79 and 25.
Small-town charm is practically written into every brick of the small diners, stuffed under every layer of decades-old asphalt, suspended in the air by the weary cables holding the traffic light. It’s a town where, almost literally, everybody knows everybody. The young boys that came over to play with my girlfriend’s little brother all boasted of knowing every police officer.
I’d like to say more about Archer City, but it’s truly nothing more than two gas stations (which double as a diner and a supermarket, respectively), a Dairy Queen, a large school (housing all grades, elementary through high school), a completely unsupervised gun range and a nice-looking bank. That’s not entirely true; there is one feature of explicit interest in the sleepy town: it’s the home of author Larry McMurtry.
If you’re anything like me, you have no idea who Larry McMurtry is, just as I didn’t when my girlfriend’s mother excitedly let it slip. I came to learn that he’s an author, but not just any author: a successful author. But not just any successful author: he’s Larry McMurtry, a nearly-canonized figure in Texan literature, responsible for classics such as “Lonesome Dove,” “Horseman, Pass By” and even the screenplay for “Brokeback Mountain,” though perhaps Archer City residents don’t hold as much pride in that last accomplishment.
His larger-than-life persona wasn’t dampened when we drove by his home, by far the largest building in the town, flanked by sprawling acres of land donated to the town, now turned into a country club. While McMurtry happens to spend most of his time in Arizona, his influence on the town is heavily felt, not only through the towering mansion but also through a chain of five bookstores peppered around the place.
The chain is called “Booked Up,” and while it used to consist of five different locations all housing different genres of thousands and thousands of books, it’s been downsized to just two, located directly across the street from each other. Put simply, it’s now just the main store and an overflow store.
McMurtry started the chain a few decades ago in Washington D.C. before moving it all to Archer City. “Booked Up” specializes in rare and out-of-print books, all used, of course. The lobby of the main store houses the especially rare and intricately bound books: huge, dusty volumes, sometimes in another language, almost always on sale for over a thousand dollars.
The bread and butter of “Booked Up” is in the back, a literal garage with shelves reaching towards the very high ceiling, absolutely filled with books. The wealth of present genres was impressive, as was the relative obscurity of everything there. I had to keep reminding myself that these were all old, out-of-print books when I couldn’t find something I was specifically looking for.
Of all the genres present in the store, from fiction, Texas fiction, western, psychology, religion, etc., McMurtry seems to host a predisposition for literary criticism and biographies. By far, this was the largest section of the store, with three full rows of shelving dedicated to Virginia Woolf, just to help illustrate how many books there were.
To also help illustrate about how busy the store is, when we tried visiting the overflow location across the street and found it was locked, an employee from the first store came and opened it for us, citing that they don’t unlock that one until they get into the real swing of the day. They’d been open for two-and-a-half hours and were closing in another one-and-a-half. They then left us alone in the store, prompting me to cross the street with my picks when I wanted to checkout.
The store is something of a tourist destination, no doubt, but it doesn’t look like it’s ever overflowing with action. Things are quiet in there, the A/C unit rattles in the back, a few stray cats saunter around to find the food left out by employees. It’s a place that feels frozen, dedicated to some indistinct time in the past. There’s real pride in that store, somewhere between all those books.
It obviously doesn’t pay the bills. I’m sure McMurtry keeps it afloat just to keep his passion project open. Driving out of Archer City on New Year’s Day, I marveled again at how small the town was. It amazed me how a town once-infamous for a viral photo in which children held signs at a ballgame bearing the slogan “Build that wall” (the opposing team was apparently mostly Hispanic) could nonetheless hold such a literary mecca.
I shot a pistol for the first time that week, at the gun range all the way across town, on the other side of Archer City Lake. From where I stood, I could see the roof of Larry McMurtry’s mansion, towering over the rest of the buildings, even the school. I pondered the dichotomy of the town as I shot through half a magazine. Turns out I’m a bad aim.