Larry McMurtry’s novels are barely mentioned. They just don’t seem that important to him. Books: A Memoir is a book about being a bookman, being a book scout, being a used bookseller, and being a bibliophile. Countless authors stress the importance of literacy and bang on about how books must never die, but how many open bookstores and get their hands dirty at the sharp end of this business – flogging used books? Not many. Most writers leave bookselling to booksellers.
Famously known as a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, McMurtry is a really a used bookseller who just happens to write incredible novels and moving screenplays. For 47 years, he has producing writing that has grasped America’s imagination. He’s also been a used and rare bookseller for a long time and felt the ups and downs of the business. While novels such as Horseman, Pass By (1961), The Last Picture Show (1966), Terms of Endearment (1975), Lonesome Dove (1985) and Buffalo Girls (1990) made his name as an acclaimed novelist, he was dealing in books on a day-to-day basis.
A true bibliophile with a personal collection of 28,000 books in his home, McMurtry began as a book scout, digging out rare literature of value and selling them to used book dealers, while studying at Stanford in the 1960s. He managed a rare bookstore in Houston called the Bookman for a couple of years. In the early 1970s, he co-founded a used bookstore in Washington DC called Booked Up that was a bibliophilic landmark for over 30 years. Eventually, he headed back to his home state of Texas and opened up another Booked Up in Archer City – a one-horse town where the horse left long ago. Booked Up is a classic bookstore for bibliophiles selling used and rare books with a wide ranging inventory of 400,000 titles. His life has also included stops in Denver, Dallas (where he had his first job in a bookstore), Austin, and San Francisco (where he learnt book scouting) with books always at the heart of his daily existence.
In Books: A Memoir, McMurtry - a Pulitzer winner for Lonesome Dove - details his love of books, reading, bookselling and the people he has met through books and bookstores. As no fan of technology, he mourns the loss of AB Bookman – a magazine dedicated to the rare book business that went out of business once websites like AbeBooks and Alibris took off. As no fan of technology, he does not want to sell books online although his manager at Booked Up is currently selling with AbeBooks. He has never owned or even switched on a computer and writes his novels on a Hermes 3000 typewriter, which he praised at the 2006 Oscars. A man who is so embedded within the book world simply has no time for the new fangled Internet.
The memoir explains how his love of books began in a bookless home when his cousin dropped off a box of 19 books, mainly boys’ adventure tales, before going to war. Those 19 books laid the foundation for what he describes as a “life with books.”
He muses on the antiquarian booktrade with many anecdotes. Many booksellers who offer their books for sale through AbeBooks are mentioned, including Allan Stypeck from Washington DC’s Second Story Books, the recently closed Heritage Book Shop in Los Angeles, John Crichton’s Brick Row Book Shop, William Reese in New Haven and many, many others.
He recalls buying trips to London, attending auctions, and buying and selling particular eye-catching editions – and not always at the right price. However, there’s never any regret about a gem he sold too cheaply. He remembers setting up Booked Up in Washington DC and gives an intriguing description of the city’s book scene during the early 1970s. McMurtry describes how the 1970s was a decade of flux in the antiquarian booktrade with many established used bookstores closing due to high rents – a tale that sounds familiar. With relish, he tells how Booked Up’s extensive stock was built through bulk buying of personal libraries and inventories from bookstores going out of business. He declares a love for John Carter’s Taste and Technique in Book Collecting.
Characterized by short chapters either mulling over a facet of used bookselling or retelling an anecdote about a particular book, McMurtry steadily moves through the decades. His own writing, which he actually came to dislike for a long period of time, plays second fiddle to his love of bookselling throughout the memoir. He describes how writing was no longer a passion by the mid-1970s but how his appetite for bookselling never dimmed.
Today, you will find McMurtry pricing the incoming books at Booked Up in Archer City, handling the objects he loves. Books: A Memoir is a must for bookmen and bookwomen everywhere.