The Digital Journalist
Selected photos from Michael O'Brien's The Face of Texas.
© Michael O'Brien

Larry McMurtry - Larry McMurtry died on the operating table in 1991. After having a heart attack, he underwent quadruple bypass surgery, and doctors brought his body back to life. But McMurtry, who fell into a debilitating depression a few months later, believes his personality suffered a permanent rupture; and though he began functioning - and writing - again, he has never been quite the same. In the mid-90s, after living in big cities most of his life, he returned to his hometown of Archer City, Texas, population 1,800, and focused on his first love: book collecting.

McMurtry, America's best-known writer of 19th-Century Western fiction - author of more than 20 novels, including The Last Picture Show, Terms of Endearment, and the Pulitzer-Prize-winning Lonesome Dove - has never liked horses. But he's a rancher nonetheless of books. He has transformed Archer City into the home of the largest collection of used and antique books in the country. His enormous bookstore, Booked Up, is housed in four buildings, one of them the former Ford dealership, scattered around Archer City's town square. It is the largest business in the once nearly bookless town - inspiration for The Last Picture Show - that sits at the intersection of Highways 25 and 79 in the rolling plains of North Texas.

"I think of my bookshop as a book ranch, a large one," says McMurtry, who was born in Wichita Falls and grew up in nearby Archer City with his grandparents, ranchers and first-generation pioneers. "Instead of herding cattle, I herd books."

Booked Up has a small staff, mostly concentrated in the main building; the other three buildings are often left unstaffed and open to customers, who are expected to use the honor system and lug their prospective purchases to the cashier across the way. The store has no catalog, database or master stock list. You can't use a search engine to find what you're looking for. Booked Up is set up for browsing, and book enthusiasts have to catch on to McMurtry's quixotic system: a store flyer notes that the books are arranged "Erratically/Impressionistically/Whimsically/Open to Interpretation." Works of fiction are located in two buildings, split by the year 1925; history books are spread across three stores; and art catalogs are housed separately from art and photography books.

McMurtry, who opened the original Booked Up in Washington, D.C., in 1971, prefers customers to make the trek to Archer City themselves. His dream is to create another Hay-on-Wye, the small Welsh village that has become a Mecca for book lovers around the globe. And with the death of urban bookstores in America -- due to astronomical real estate prices and redevelopment -- his future as a bookseller seems bright.