Years ago I read Lonesome Dove, and loved it. Later I read The Desert Rose and enjoyed both novels set in America’s South West. Over the years I’ve seen Hud, Cadillac Jack, Buffalo Girls, Dead Man’s Walk, at the movies, not realising they started out as books written by McMurtry. Furthermore, he wrote the screen play (together with Diana Ossana) of one of my favourite movies, Brokeback Mountain.
What a prodigious writer the man is: 29 novels, two collections of essays, three memoirs, more than 40 screenplays! He won the Pulitzer Prize for Lonesome Dove, and an Academy Award for Brokeback. All this I discovered, and more, when I read his account of a lifetime spent writing, buying, selling and reading books, in his memoir titled “Books – a memoir”. The chapters are short – sometimes only one page in length, but what a wealth of anecdotes and history of American book collecting, buying and selling they contain.
I loved the stores about eccentric booksellers, often hidden away in tiny dark shops, for instance the little old Jewish bookseller whose shelves extended up to the ceiling and who made his customers view his stock through binoculars! Nowadays things have changed, and often owners of bookstores or libraries who wish to sell their collections or stock, will simply make a video recording of the shelves, which McMurtry and his partner Marcia Carter will scan, and then decided whether to buy the books – or not.
I was intrigued to read about the enormous libraries amassed by the rich (and the super rich), the famous, and the movie moguls. A very few appear to have been genuine lovers of books and reading; the remainder displayed their collections as signs of their wealth and prestige. I was astonished to learn that big collections of books, numbering the thousands, change hands at auction or private sale, holus bolus, in their entirety, and McMurtry relates how he drove to auctions in his car, loading the vehicle to the hilt on the homeward run with his purchases. He says that the loading and unloading and unpacking of book cartons is the physical side of book collecting, and dealing. I’ll bet it is – a carton of books can be damn heavy, as I know!
I did a rough count of the books currently in my cupboards and shelves and came out at around 700. This number is miniscule when compared to the private libraries of the wealthy, some of whom specialise in collecting specific editions – of the classics, say – in their entirety. No wonder their libraries number in the thousands. And of course University and State Libraries also contain (and on occasion sell) complete collections of a particular author’s work. Interestingly, when official Libraries receive a bequest from an estate, sometimes a portion of the bequest will be sold off to the dealers and collectors, because it does not fall within the ambit of their collection.
McMurtry has tales of trawling through second-hand book shops in the States and in the UK, buying huge job lots of books, and occasionally discovering something really valuable in amongst the dross, that sells of hundreds of dollars, and in one transaction pays for the entire job lot, with a handsome profit remaining. He also lists – depressingly – a long list of bookstores he has dealt with over the years, many of which have sold up and closed down. He reflects towards the end of his memoir on the usurping role of computers in libraries, sometimes – oh horror! – replacing the book stock entirely. He ruefully decides you can’t stem the tide, things will, and do, change.
But he loves books. Always has and always will, and he turned his home town Archer City, Texas, into a booktown (being inspired by the English town devoted to books, Hay-on-Wye). He owns and operates a vast bookstore comprised of nearly 400,000 used, rare and collectible books.
Now THAT’S A BOOKSTORE! I’d love to visit it.