Archer City, TX, located in the northern part of Texas, just below the Oklahoma border, has a population of 1,834 people, according to the 2010 census. It’s the county seat, has approximately 1 stop light, a total area of 2.2 square miles, and, as best as we could tell, 3 places to eat.
And it has 1 very important bookstore called Booked Up, which is owned by Larry McMurtry, author of Lonesome Dove and The Last Picture Show. Booked Up has about 200,000 books. That's far more books than people in Archer City and that’s after Booked Up sold off one half of their inventory 4 years ago going down from 4 storefronts to 2.
And if this were a piece about numbers perhaps we'd discuss the book-to-person ratio, or the books per capita average, or maybe even books per square mile (roughly 100,000, by my count) or the number of Booked Up storefronts per square mile (roughly 1).
But this is not a piece about numbers it's a piece about words and about how absolutely dumbstruck I was when I walked in and saw shelf after shelf after shelf after shelf of floor to ceiling books. There I was surrounded by all those words and I was completely speechless.
Like a kid in a candy store I went up and down every aisle and eventually found a few words to utter - like “oh my gosh. Oh my gosh. Oh my gosh.” Eventually I slowed down and the four of us - my parents, Sergio, and me - started browsing.
One of the first books I found was The Lively Anatomy of God published by EAKINS press or, as I read it, E Akins press. I just knew it was a sign. The first story inside it was about a woman who believes in signs. Well, clearly that was a sign! Having once read a book called The Shadow of the Wind wherein a boy chooses a book - or maybe the book chooses him - from the “Cemetery of Forgotten Books,” I found it quite possible to believe in just this sort of enchanted nature of bookstores. It was easy to think that at Booked up in Archer City, TX, something magical like that is possible. Because clearly this place is magic.
Except it didn’t seem all that magical to the two people who work there. The woman who welcomed us when we first came in didn’t seem to register my enthusiasm when I had to come back to the front and ask again “where do I find the bathroom?” because I asked her once already and tried to follow her directions but let’s be honest I didn’t hear a word she said because BOOKS BOOKS BOOKS. She and her cohort - the only two employees of Booked Up seem to have more of a cataloging, functional role, perfunctory even … and while they may be interested enough to ask “where ‘yall from?” they certainly aren’t interested in the fact that it took us 15 years to get to Archer City, to actually make good on the original idea that my dad had. They were only politely interested but by then it was 5:00 and magical or not, Booked Up closes at 5:00.
In the hours that transpired between our excited arrival and our prompt departure (with books in tow), we found The Light Side of Egypt, Aboriginal Indian Basketry, The Southern Expansion of the Chinese People, The Meaning of Meaning, Imperial Dictionary of Universal Biography, Ghost Towns of New Mexico, The Butter Industry, an ad for The Times Literary Supplement that asks “Do you get the most out of the books you read? Some books will stand the test of many readings and many are never fully appreciated the first time they are read.”
Oh, and a framed, pillowcase embroidered with this: “In my dream, I was in an underground parking garage. Fred Astaire danced out from between two cars. A sedan almost hit him but he leapt away.”
And I found a set of Harper’s Magazines from 1926. I dusted off their plastic jackets and pried one open to read “The Cheer-Leader in Literature” in which William McFee laments the practice of teaching writing at universities and schools stating that “the ultimate achievement of schools for fiction is the establishment of mediocrity as the controlling influence of American literature.” Oh, Mr McFee - you can sign me up as one of the “cheer-leaders of mediocrity,” Buddy, because that. Is. Nonsense. I decided I was going to have to take home one of these Harper's. Maybe this one or or maybe the one with the article called “Seven Deadly Sins of Women In Business.” I went up to the front of the store to ask how much these would cost.
When I got to the front I discovered that only one employee was there and that the woman who prices things had gone to pick up her daughter from school. I took a moment while I waited to read the back flap of Larry McMurtry’s book called Books: A Memoir, in which he shares that for much of his childhood he didn’t have any books in his house. Instead, he and his family and their neighbors would all sit on their front porches and tell stories and so, while he may not have grown up around books, he learned the art of story from the get go.
Eventually the woman who prices things comes back with her daughter who, would you believe, is some sort of cheerleader at the local elementary school and is dressed up in her garb. (Did I mention we were there on a Friday during football season? Go Wildcats!)
What must it be like to grow up in this magic store surrounded by all these books? Maybe she is Booked Up’s cheerleader of literature. But with her fingers smudged from Doritos or Cheetos or whatever it is she’s eating, I don’t imagine her reading very many of these pricey rare texts and probably she, like her mom, doesn’t register the excitement. She is a kid in a bookstore, not a kid in a candy store.
I bought one issue of Harper’s. It was $10. That’s roughly $1 per article inside the publication but really it’s kind of priceless when you get to page 312 of the magazine and read Albert Jay Nock saying “I wish they would sometimes get restless under their own excellences. It seems only human that they should do so… Their temperament makes no room for the great and saving grace of cussedness, whereby one gets tired of a smooth monotonous best and skirmishes around for a look at something that probably is not so good but is restfully different.”
Priceless. This is not a piece about numbers - it’s a piece about words. And about how each person who writes in the English language has the exact same 26 letters available to them - 26 letters on each person’s little Scrabble rack in their brain - which collectively have been parlayed into about a quarter of a million words and from there, an innumerable number of ideas and concepts, and from there an inordinate number of books. Books. Books.
Promise me you won’t ask yourself - which book would I be if I lived in the dystopian world of Farhenheit 451 and had to choose a book to embody. Because nobody wants to think about burning books.
And let’s not think about whether we love paper books over e-readers or about how many books fit on a kindle. Because this isn’t about reading on a Kindle. It’s about picking a book up off the shelf and discovering that Dorys Grover of 522 Lyon St in Ames, Iowa was sent a postcard on January 17, 1972 from Iowa State University library asking her to return the copy of Atlas Shrugged that she had borrowed.
Instead let’s use other “incendiary” words in order to think about how for each person who miraculously parlays their 26 letters into a book, there are how many more readers of that book? And whether you are the writer or the reader, you know full well how a book kindles the fires deep within each of us. An idea that takes hold, that catches on, and grows like wild fire. The words that light a flame under you. The words that you light on fire.
What book were you reading when you first realized - this is it. This is what I want. This is me.
Or how about this - what was your first book? Can you even answer that question? My dad can. It was Pinocchio. And it was given to him by his much older sister Ruth when he was about 7. Do you remember your first book? I don’t. And my children won’t. My children each have more books haphazardly wedged between the pillows on their beds than the whole of my father’s library when he was their age.
And Larry McMurtry, the man who keeps 28,000 books at his home as well as owning 2 storefronts full of roughly 200,000 books probably remembers his first book. And in fact he remembers that one of the two books his family owned when he was a teen was a book he gave to his father.
My father gave me my first Larry McMurtry book.
Who gave you your first book?
My daughter gave me a book shortly after we got back from Archer City. It was a book I already owned and had already read and in fact, it’s a book my dad had read as well. It’s Papa Hemingway. She pulled it off the shelf, wrapped it, gave it to me for my pretend birthday. I flopped it open and found something I’d underlined 15 years ago that had inspired me and spurred me on - something about the challenge that writers overcome to achieve the same pure emotion as artists: “Artists” Hemingway says “have all those great colors, while I have to do it on a typerwriter or with my pencil in black and white.”
The same 26 letters per person. Magically transformed. Cheering us on.