I’ve made a strange and intriguing discovery here in Magnolia.
Nothing sparks the imagination quite like moving to a small town and seeing things you don’t understand, have no connection to, but would like to learn more about. I find you can only go so far, that most towns reveal only so much, leaving you right back where you started – at square one. It’s frustrating, but then you have to understand the nature of the small town, which is to protect itself. So it’s always interesting when the curtain parts, if only for a moment, and you catch a glimpse of something you hadn’t known – and see the irony behind it all.
What am I talking about, and why are there pictures of bookshelves? I’ll tell you.
Back in 1999, I left my home state of Arkansas for the Great State of Texas, which is indeed a great state. I made my new home in Sherman, which is in the northern part of the state, up near what I like to think of as “the roof” of Texas, the Red River. I worked at the newspaper in Sherman, among some fairly erudite people, people who liked reading as much as I did, and who didn’t mind pointing me to some fantastic bookstores. There was one great bookseller in Sherman, and I was already intimately familiar with its shelves, but I wanted more. Darrell, our wire copy editor, recommended a chain called Half Price Books in the Dallas area. I took his advice and visited, and my mind was blown by this Valhalla. Not only could you buy books, you could sell your own in exchange for store credit – unheard of! Half Price was the bookseller of my dreams, but Darrell knew of still another store … one far off, in West Texas … and told me the legend one day while we were proofing pages.
It seemed the renowned author Larry McMurtry, the man behind such literary classics as Lonesome Dove, Terms of Endearment, The Evening Star, Zeke & Ned, and, of course, The Last Picture Show, had transformed much of the downtown portion of his hometown, Archer City, into a bookstore. Yes, he’d purchased four or five old buildings on the town square and filled them with books he purchased around the world. I don’t mean he sat at home and shopped on the Internet, which most everyone does today. No, he traveled the world, buying up the inventory of book stores that were folding. He also just bought books wherever and whenever he could find them. As money was no object, he bought what interested him. And these books were now for sale in downtown Archer City, which was simply heaven for bibliophiles like me.
I quickly planned a trip. Archer City was a good three hours west of Sherman, south of Wichita Falls. I knew I was looking at a day-long trek, but I could not think of anything more worthwhile. I took my first sojourn on a cold day in late December, 1999. I remember the wind was blowing and the sun shone harshly, with no clouds to soften the glare. I drove my disreputable 1995 Chevy Cavalier to Wichita Falls, then headed south toward Destination McMurtry. The first thing I noticed on rolling into Archer City was that it was very much like towns I’d left behind in Arkansas – small, poor, not much to look at. A cow town with a boom-or-bust economy. There were tumbleweeds blowing through it. I thought about the town’s history and how it had become inextricably tied to McMurtry.
His novel, The Last Picture Show, unread (at that point) by me, was made into a movie by the then-famous director, Peter Bogdonovich. The film was shot on location in Archer City; not only was the town now a bookstore, it was also an old film lot. My editor in Sherman, Donnie Eldredge, was a film buff and bibliophile in his own right, and he’d let me borrow his DVD of Picture Show. It had become one of my favorite movies, and I was anxious to find the actual locations. As soon as I entered the town square, I recognized it from the movie – the historic courthouse (built in the unmistakable style of almost all historic Texas courthouses) and the storefronts surrounding it. On one corner, east of the courthouse, stood the movie theater itself, site of the last picture show. It was, of course, defunct, not unlike most of Archer City. I parked on the street, the only visitor, the only guest. A powerful and cold West Texas wind cut me to the bone. I remember a shitty old farm truck rumbling through town. That was it. Welcome to the most glamorous place I’d ever seen.
I could not have been more excited.
I ended up prowling each of the stores owned by McMurtry. Each building contained a different classification of book, meaning, yes, there was a fiction building, and there was a foreign-language building, and there was another devoted entirely to the arts. You’ve heard the phrase, “died and gone to heaven”? That was me.
I bought only a few books but I stayed for hours, browsing the stuffed and inexhaustibly fascinating shelves of the Pulitzer Prize-winning author. I felt like I was in his house, in his private library; there were few if any staffers, and you browsed on the honor system. If you wanted to buy a book, you had to go to Booked Up No. 1, where McMurtry happened to house the fiction. I remember rare first editions from Hemingway, Twain, Proust, and maybe a half-dozen other masters … film-set memorabilia from 1989’s television adaptation of Lonesome Dove … and an entire section devoted to galleys of some of the most famous novels of all time. I actually took down an unedited copy of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. In those days, Vonnegut was my favorite writer. Do you see what I mean by “died and gone to heaven”?
I made two more pilgrimages to Archer City, not long after my first trip. On the third and final run, I took my friend John, who drove all the way out from Arkansas to shop at Booked Up. The highlight of that trip was that Larry McMurtry himself was out and about, stocking the shelves from a pushcart. In the science-fiction section, John worked up the courage to ask Mr. McMurtry for help finding a book by Piers Anthony. The owner, courteous and polite, in the way of Texas ranchers and book dealers, quickly located the title and put it in John’s hand. We were impressed with the quality of customer service.
It’s been almost 20 years since I visited Archer City. I remember sitting in the Dairy Queen on the edge of town and reading a book by Mr. McMurtry called Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen. On the cover of this book was the very Dairy Queen in which I sat; the DQ of the title referred to the same restaurant. I’ll never forget climbing a ladder in one of Mr. McMurtry’s stores, its only customer, searching among books about cinema and finding published screenplays that were rare beyond rare. These are fond memories few would understand or find interesting. I mean, go to Amazon, for Christ’s sake.
It’s present day. I work for the university in Magnolia, Ark. Our house is located around the corner from a rather dismal shopping center. In this shopping center – and not terribly long ago – I noticed a bookstore. The store is, or was, The Full Nelson.
My dog Leo likes to walk, and I have to admit, I enjoy walking him. He’s a Jack Russell Terrier and he likes to stretch his legs, sniff around, see what other dogs and people and cats and squirrels, etc., have been up to. Lately we have taken to walking north on our street toward the university and the shopping center in question. The Full Nelson beckons. I’ve taken to peeking in the windows at night.
The shelves are full. They are loaded with hardcover editions that appear to be in excellent condition. The shelves go on and on. The only time a light is on is at night, and though there’s usually a car parked out front, I can never detect a person inside the store. No hours are posted and no phone number; I cannot figure out when I might go in and browse.
Last night, as Leo and I were window-shopping, a man emerged from whatever shadowy place was open next door, and at wit’s end, I stopped him to ask if The Full Nelson had business hours. I was informed, not unpleasantly, that the store was closed – not for the night, as I at first thought, but for good. Bummer! Total bummer! The store is full of books!
Tonight, I did a little more investigating. I ran an Internet search. The local online newspaper tells me that The Full Nelson marked its grand opening in 2012; it names the owners and talks a little about what customers could expect to find.
I’ll never be able to adequately describe the shock I felt at reading in the article that The Full Nelson had purchased 10 percent of the stock of Booked Up, McMurtry’s bookstore. The books I saw on the shelves had been imported directly from Archer City. They remain unreachable, untouchable. I can find no trace of the owners and I have no idea when the store closed. Further, there’s no hint as to why the store closed or why its owners left all that merchandise on full display, presumably to rot or be stolen. I ran across an article in Texas Monthly about Booked Up – McMurtry has (tragically!) closed shop, and in 2012 sold off 300,000 titles. Some of those ended up here in Magnolia.
I am tortured. I know there is a large and magical supply of books inside a building about 200 yards from where I sit. Chances are not great that I will ever be able to peruse those books. I’ve already spotted a few that I’d like to buy … but as is often the case in small towns like Magnolia (and, for that matter, Archer City), I’m stymied by a mystery I may never solve. Understand, it’s not the buying of books that interests me … it’s the browsing, the potential, the possibility, that tempts me.
I’ll probably contact the Chamber of Commerce, though I doubt they’ll be able to tell me anything. This is Magnolia. A town guards its secrets.
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