Friday, February 04, 2005


The (Ghost) Town of Books

News comes from the Star-Telegram (thanks to MobyLives for the link) that Larry McMurtry is shuttering his Archer City bookstore indefinitely:

In the latest plot twist of McMurtry's off-and-on romance with his hometown, the author of Lonesome Dove now says he will padlock his small-town bookplex, Booked Up, at year's end for a "sabbatical"....

Booked Up sprawls across four buildings around the courthouse square: 20,000 square feet filled with 200,000 used and rare books, or about 100 books for every resident of Archer City.... Until this week, the store hours had been intermittent. Visitors came to Archer City, only to find the store closed except Thursdays through Saturdays and "by appointment."....

Last year he told Texas Monthly that he was tired of cedar allergies and of driving to Fort Worth for a good steak. He couldn't imagine growing old in his hometown, he said. "I'm very social," he was quoted as saying. "I like to go out at night. I like to sit in a nice room and look at beautiful women. I don't want to just sit on my back porch drinking scotch, and there isn't much more to do in Archer City."

Very social? Good lord, man, what are you in used bookselling for?

But seriously: I know that hopeful comparisons have been made over the years between Archer City and the Welsh book town Hay-on-Wye. It's nice to think that such a thing could have happened in Texas too, but... well, as one old saying from Hay's neck of the woods goes, "when the sky falls, we can catch larks with our hands."

My brief time living in Hay-on-Wye made me ponder why it succeeded so well. There have certainly been attempts at recreating its model elsewhere. Here's the problem: you can't just dump hundreds of thousands of books any old place and expect it to become a Book Town. And for these purposes, Archer City is indeed any old place.

Hay was an ancient market town that hit the skids. That means it had lots of very serviceable old storage and retail buildings going cheaply, none of which had been "improved" by modernity, and which proved to be splendid for packing with old books. Also, although it feels quaint and isolated, Hay is in fact only half an hour out of a medium-sized city (Hereford) with train service from London, and with two airports (Birmingham and Cardiff) within 60 miles. There's bus service from Hereford directly into Hay. Plus, the surrounding countryside is beautiful.

Archer City? It's two hours from DFW airport, and you Can't Get There From Here: no bus, no train service. And god knows what else you'd be going to Dallas for.

If I were to guess, I'd say that that if a Hay-scale book town (I know, I know, Nevada City is trying) ever arises in the US, it will be in a neglected old mill town -- you need some good old 19th-century brick commercial buildings sitting about -- with a densely built walkable downtown. It will be within a hour's drive from a city with an airport... preferably a city served by Jet Blue or Southwest, since bookworms like me are cheapskates... oh, and within reach of one of the rail or bus corridors, since a lot of us are crap drivers. And it wouldn't hurt to have some bucolic rural landscape outside of town.

I'd lay my bets on something on New England. Any suggestions?

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