Larry McMurtry has a lot of books. Of course he has written a bunch of books, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Lonesome Dove being his most famous novel, but McMurtry also owns a lot of books too. He operates Booked Up, a gigantic secondhand bookshop in Archer City, Texas.
In addition to that shop, McMurtry has spent many years/decades as a bookseller in several US cities. I just finished reading Books, a charming memoir that he wrote about his life as a bookseller. It’s a quick read and bound to entertain anyone that has ever shopped in, or worked at, a secondhand bookshop. If anything, it’s maybe too quick of a read: some of the chapters are so short and sketchy that you feel like something was left out, or perhaps cut from the final edit. It’s good, but I would have preferred a more fleshed-out tale.
McMurtry’s approach to bookselling is quite different from my own; he deals in rare or antiquarian books, while I prefer to sell books that people are actually going to read. I make no secret of my loathing for the trade in rare books. I find the practice of buying books just to collect them, or to display them on a shelf or behind glass, somewhat perverse. And the high amounts of money that some of these collectibles command is almost obscene. Books are published so that people can read them. I don’t think they should be considered “investments” or dealt in like commodities. I recently had a customer in my shop that was specifically looking for rare books. This guy made a circuit of the store, sniffing at the shelves and obviously not finding anything to his liking. “I was looking for antiquarian titles,” he confirmed. “But most of what you have here are … books for reading.” It appeared that uttering the word “reading” was painful for him to say. I wanted to reply, “Yeah, buddy, that’s what you do with books,” but I held my tongue and confirmed his hunch that, yes indeed, our unspectacular stock consisted mainly of books that people would actually read … as opposed to fondling, or whatever the collector types do with their tomes. But rare or common, it’s refreshing to find people that still sell books, and enjoy doing it.
The antiquarian angle aside, reading about McMurtry’s experiences in the business was very enlightening. I particularly enjoyed the anecdotes about some of the more unusual customers he has dealt with over the years. Dickens knows, we’ve all had our share of characters. But Books is not only about his bookshop (he has owned retail establishments in several cities over the past 50 years), but also about the books and screenplays he has written, and the books he has enjoyed reading. Although it’s classified as a memoir, there really aren’t many details about his personal life outside of the book business. There is, however, one personal tidbit with a musical angle: in the book he mentions his son James. That is indeed the musician James McMurtry who released several acclaimed albums, including his 1989 debut Too Long in the Wasteland and Where’d You Hide the Body.