One of the largest book auctions in recent memory took place in one of the smallest venues to ever see such an auction. Of course, this was no ordinary auction, but one of a large portion of the stock of noted bookseller and author Larry McMurtry's Booked Up shop in tiny Archer City, Texas. When the dust settled (there's lots of dust in this hot, dry, country near the Oklahoma border), between 250,000 and 275,000 books had changed hands. That's roughly 150 books for every resident of Archer City, but this does mean that these folks are unusually vociferous readers. Bidders came from all over the country to participate in what was as much an event for the book as a sale of them.
The Last Book Sale (a play on author McMurtry's The Last Picture Show) was not a going out of business sale. Mr. McMurtry will continue in the business, a remaining stock of some 150,000 titles still making Booked Up one of the larger shops in the country. However, at the age of 76, Mr. McMurtry determined this was an appropriate time to downsize a bit.
From the start, Mr. McMurtry and auctioneer Michael Addison plotted out a course different from the typical auction. Auctions can generally do a good job of selling a few hundred books, but they were faced with finding a way to sell 300,000 of them. As many booksellers can attest, that is no small challenge in these days of huge online inventories on listing sites, and more people reading electronic versions of books. Their conclusion was that The Last Book Sale needed to be an event, not just an auction. And so it was. There was a barbecue, a screening of a movie, and, of course, Mr. McMurtry's presence. He has always known how to attract a crowd. How else do you explain a large, successful book store in Archer City, Texas? As Mr. Addison explained, “An auction is supposed to be fun. Many people come to auctions for the fun of it but end up bidding and buying. I think that when people have fun, they feel less inhibited and more free to bid.”
We went to Mr. Addison to get an insider's look at what must be, at least so far, a prime contender for the title of most interesting book sale of this century. He graciously put down some recollections on what was an extremely busy, whirlwind of a weekend for both him and Mr. McMurtry. “At some point during the evening before the auction when everyone gathered in the Royal Theater for the BBQ and movie-screening,” he said, “everyone just had this sense that this was a significant event. There was almost an instant sense among the bidders, guests, and staff that they were all participating in something very special. As Larry McMurtry put it after about the first day of the sale, 'It's become an event that has transcended its literal purpose.'
“The first surprise was the overwhelming presence of the national media. I haven't been in a situation where I needed a staff member dedicated to PR, but I could have used someone like that in Archer City. It started during the preview period when, early on, the local news station sent out a film crew and did interviews with Mr. McMurtry and myself. Then the local paper took photos and did an interview. No problem. But Wednesday and especially Thursday, media converged on Archer City on a scale far beyond what I anticipated. The Houston Chronicle, the New York Times, the Dallas Morning News, media reporters from L.A., New York, and everywhere in between were surrounding Mr. McMurtry in Booked Up store number 1, and they were stopping me to ask questions and do brief interviews when they could keep up with me walking from building to building at a brisk pace. We were very appreciative of all of the attention and publicity. There were plenty of questions coming from every direction. Mostly the media was interested in what Mr. McMurtry had to say. Larry McMurtry really brings out the crowds and the media, no doubt about that.
“After the two-day auction, Larry and I were finally able to catch up with each other. I immediately noticed that his voice had become a bit rough from all of the interviews. He was tired as was I. However, he was also happy, visibly relieved though exhausted from all the goings on. I think the need to downsize had been a stress for him, the auction had been a stress for all of us, and he seemed quite happy that it not only was finished but was quite successful. We heard nothing but positive feedback from the guests. Everyone had a great time, and booksellers came in droves, from Powell's in Oregon to Between the Covers in New Jersey. However, the buyer who took the 'gold' for the most lots purchased was Eric Papenfuse of Midtown Scholar books out of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.”
Mr. Addison noted that some bidders came to gather stock, but others just wanted a piece of the legendary store. He was particularly surprised to find several people interested in the four posters he had printed at Office Depot several weeks earlier. They were put up for sale and brought in around $200 each. “Locals told me that this was the largest crowd they had ever seen in Archer City. When The Last Picture Show cast returned to film Texasville, there were crowds, but according to the local folks I spoke with, our auction crowd was much larger. By the last day of the sale, we had about 200 registered bidders, and most of them brought guests. Aside from the auction bidders and guests, people came by the dozens just to shop in Building number 1, which was open for shopping. In all, I would say between 400 and 600 people came to Archer City for the sale; some stayed for days, some stayed for a couple of hours.”