Books: A Memoir

Larry McMurtry's life and times as a bookseller.

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The moral among antiquarian booksellers, according to Larry McMurtry’s new Books: A Memoir, is that you can’t know everything. Pricing errors are bound to happen, like the day McMurtry bought a book for $250, sold it the next day for $750, and then watched it sell a few months later for $8,000. The book turned out to be a rare, censored edition that had passed through the libraries of two important collectors – a Russian prince and a “creepy Parisian” – and contained the unusual photographic bookplate of the latter.

Such tales fill McMurtry’s 50 years as a book dealer. He’s handled hundreds of thousands of books yet recalls even the tiniest details.

After growing up in a “bookless” house in Texas, McMurtry began writing, then buying and selling books. The book trade has long been his central passion and his own library now contains 28,000 volumes of books he’s still reading.

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In this memoir he recounts the thrill of finding, buying, researching, selling, and sometimes just holding many of these books. He keeps tabs on the “silent migration” of books, and brings to life the dealers and buyers who’ve owned them. One dealer insisted buyers view his collection through binoculars. Another kept his best books hidden in paper bags in dark corners and would unscrew light bulbs to discourage casual browsers. When McMurtry acquired the shop he immediately screwed in lights and uncovered valuable tomes.

McMurtry and his partner, Marcia Carter, opened a bookshop in Washington, D.C., in the 1970s,. Eventually they moved to Houston and finally settled – along with their current stock of 300,000 books – in McMurtry’s hometown, Archer City, Texas. They’re still buying and selling.

It’s hard to imagine McMurtry having time for another pursuit; he’s written 28 novels (“Lonesome Dove,” “Terms of Endearment”), and 30 screenplays (including “Brokeback Mountain.”) He still writes 10 pages a day, “ignoring holidays and weekends,” yet considers himself a book man first, writer second.

He has no plans to retire. “The things there are to know about a given book,” he writes, “absorb the attention of the best dealers for a lifetime.”

Elizabeth Brown is a freelance writer in Hillsborough, N.C.

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