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Blue Highway Literature

Out-of-the-way bookstores survive internet pressure

Bye. Bye. Go. Go,” Larry McMurtry urged as he bid farewell to thousands of books, auctioned off at Booked Up, his shop in his hometown, Archer City, over a hot August weekend in 2012. The bookseller-novelist, winner of a Pulitzer Prize for his novel Lonesome Dove (Simon and Schuster, 1985), called his auction “The Last Book Sale.”

Many attendees bought volumes for their own secondhand bookshops. Some came not knowing they soon would morph into booksellers themselves. Scott and Lisa Krumm trekked to Archer City from Tyler to buy three books but toted home some 300 tomes.

“We had to laugh about it,” Lisa says. The purchase also inspired the couple’s used-book business. “Right now, we only sell by mail through our website and through abebooks.com, but we plan to open a brick-and-mortar store in Brick Street Village on Tyler’s Azalea Trail.” Taking a cue from McMurtry, the Krumms named their business The Last Book Store.

That name might give the willies to unrepentant book nuts. Online sales have caused the shuttering of many bookstores—major chains and mom-and-pop shops, but internet shopping will never replace the pleasures of browsing in a store and discovering a new (or old) author. Nor can pixels on a screen replace the tactile sensation of holding a bound volume.

The situation may have seemed dire in the early 2000s. However, since 2009, American readers have witnessed a 30 percent increase in independent bookshops, according to the American Booksellers Association. The gathering at The Last Book Sale in Archer City reflected this resurgence. Now that Booked Up has slimmed down to 150,000 texts, the largest independent seller in Texas is Recycled Books, Records & CDs in Denton.

Housed since 1990 in the circa-1890s three-story Wright Opera House on the Denton courthouse square, Recycled holds some 500,000 books, 20,000 CDs and thousands more LPs, DVDs and Blu-ray Discs. Customers take hundreds of books to sell to Recycled every day, and the store pays good prices. “We look for books that are still in good condition, and we won’t buy records or discs that are scratched,” store owner Don Foster says.

One reviewer rated Recycled as “not to be missed no matter how far you may have to drive to get there.” In addition to the usual sections, including Texana, fiction and nature, the shelves feature smaller sections such as pirates, hot air ballooning and beekeeping. A party of clowns once cleaned out the circus and carnival section.

Gladewater Books, housed in a vintage building with a pressed-tin ceiling on a brick street in downtown Gladewater, features a healthy Texana section with the requisite J. Frank Dobie shelf. One recent sale highlighted the personal touch. “We sold one guy a hard-to-find book on Burnet County history that had his family in it,” co-owner Peter Adams says. “He found it online for $150, but we sold it for $40. We do sell online through alibris.com, but we also get visitors on book-seeking pilgrimages from Dallas and Houston. They’re looking for everything from books on World War II airplanes to antique McGuffey Readers.”

Adams and his business partner, wife Betty DeRieux, bought 5,000 books from McMurtry’s Last Book Sale. “We keep a lot of books in a warehouse in the old Greyhound bus station on Highway 80,” Adams says. In a previous life, the bookseller was a criminal defense attorney in Houston. “I like this a lot better,” he explains. “I enjoy helping people find books they’re looking for, and opening a box of books is always an adventure. Selling books is much easier on the nerves, too. After doing this for eight years, I’m almost respectable.”

Stepping into a vintage bookstore, wrote one customer about the Book Gallery in McKinney, “brings back memories, like a long-lost friend who has reappeared unexpectedly and pleasantly to fill a void that one didn’t even realize existed.” Owner Jim Parker collected books for 40 years. After he retired from the corporate world 12 years ago, his wife wanted to reclaim a couple of rooms in their home. “So I opened the store,” he says. “We’re on a beautiful town square with 100 stores in historic buildings.”

One of Parker’s local browsers likes her books on the tiny side. “She collects miniature books,” he says. “And because she lives here, the international Miniature Book Society held its annual conclave here last summer.”

Wolfmueller’s Books in Kerrville began about 20 years ago when the book section of Jon and Sandy Wolfmueller’s antique store overtook the antiques. Among the books is an extensive Texana section. “We’ve expanded since then,” Sandy says. “We have about 35,000 books, and 95 percent of them are used books. We have all the popular subjects, but we also have specialties like signed editions of Steinbeck, McMurtry and Cormac McCarthy. Books on American presidents were especially popular last year.”

Though the Book Gallery and Wolfmueller’s also sell online through abebooks.com, Felton Cochran does business the old-school way at Cactus Book Shop in San Angelo. “I send out a hard-copy, printed catalog to an established list of readers,” he says. “My customer base is mostly rural and agricultural.” With an inventory of about 80 percent used books, Cactus has an extensive selection of books about Texana, frontier military, Native American history, archaeology, Texas Rangers, outlaws, Buffalo Soldiers and the Civil War. He also notes that the Texas county and regional history section takes up more than 70 linear feet of shelving.

Cochran also carries an extensive selection of the late, prolific Western author and San Angelo resident Elmer Kelton. “Elmer put San Angelo on the map,” Cochran says. “I just sold some of his books to the actor Robert Duvall, and we have a statue of Elmer here at the public library.”

Many bookstores serve the community by hosting events. Before Recycled expanded, Foster screened foreign films downstairs. Recycledpalooza, a 2012 concert event, raised funds for Denton schools. In Buffalo, The Horse’s Mouth Bookstore offers writing workshops and open mic nights. Books & Crannies, housed in Terrell’s former Iris movie theater, packs in guests for signings with noted authors such as Susan Wittig Albert. The Iris still shows an occasional movie, and the Vagabond Players present live theater there. Galveston Bookshop holds monthly meet-and-greets to showcase local authors, and the Brenham Book Nook—housed in a former mattress factory with creaky floors and shiplap walls—also spotlights area writers.

Back in Archer City, the Larry McMurtry Festival on June 30, 2018, will feature readings and a screening of The Last Picture Show at the Royal Theater (which the movie made famous), and music by McMurtry’s son and grandson, James and Curtis McMurtry. This summer, Sarah Junek reprises her Young Writers Workshop for area kids ages 13–19 through the Archer City Story Center at the circa-1920s Spur Hotel. Sister Emily Junek helps present live performances at the theater.

McMurtry wants book people to know that rumors that Booked Up has moved or been closed are “pernicious nonsense.” The shop remains open on Main Street, carrying everything from African-American studies to Western pulp fiction. There’s a generous helping of McMurtry and even a section on mycotopia. “Customers come to us,” says the august author, “from wherever the four winds blow.”

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Gene Fowler is an Austin writer who specializes in history.