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Sunday, January 5, 2020

Larry McMurtry and Me -- No, We've Never Met

The last book I read in 2019, finishing the last 50 pages or so aloud, in bed, reading to the Artist as we waited for the midnight hour to strike, was Larry McMurtry’s Books: A Memoir. McMurtry is a big-time player in the trade, as well as a very successful writer who has seen many of his novels turned into movies, but there are always areas of commonality in the lives and thoughts of reader/booksellers. Here are a few that struck me, and then a look ahead at bookish aspects of my Arizona winter.

On reading:
I nowadays have the feeling that not only are most bookmen eccentrics, but even the act they support—reading—is itself an eccentricity…. One could argue that Dickens and other popular, serially published nineteenth-century novelists started this…. But the silicon chip has accelerated the process of interruption beyond all reckoning…. 
Still, it’s at least possible that these toys will someday lose their freshness and an old-fashioned thing, the book, will come to hold some interest for the masses again.  
Then again, maybe not. Reading itself may have already become a mandarin pursuit…. 
- Larry McMurtry, Books: A Memoir
On bookselling:
By the time Internet book selling became first possible, Marcia and I thought the matter over and decided we did not want to put our stock online. We were in-shop, off-the-shelf booksellers and that was that. We don’t even like to catalogue: in thirty-five years we’ve issued two. We put attractive books on the shelves and hope that someone will recognize this and walk in, peruse, and purchase.
“That’s you!” the Artist exclaimed when I read him the passage above. As for Larry’s way of doing business, an “able shop manager” now at the Archer City, TX, began putting Booked Up’s titles online, and the partners, Larry and Marcia, have been happy to leave that aspect of the business to her.
At the bottom of our resistance to Internet book selling is our history. We always wanted not just books but a shop. Many of our customers have become friends. Like us they enjoy seeing and touching the books. Our stock represents our taste. What fun is there in clicking, compared to the pleasure of handling a fine copy of a rare book?
—Or any physical book, I would say.
We understand that we’re privileged, but so are many booksellers, so if we’re going to do this at all, we might as well do it our way. 
McMurtry is not privileged in the way of people who inherit great wealth. He has made his own privilege, as it were, working both as a writer and as a bookman, and from the start he earned his shop, his bookman identity, and his reputation as a writer. I think I understand, though, his idea of privilege, because I too feel it is great good fortune, in this often cruel world, to be able to pursue work that one loves and to make even a modest living from that work. I doubt I will ever fly to England on a buying trip, but I’ve made my primary living in bookselling for 26 years, and now, by frugal practice and careful planning, am able to enjoy a seasonal retirement in winter and return to my bookshop in spring. “You’ve got the best of both worlds,” a friend observed. Indeed!

Bookseller at Dog Ears Books, Northport, Michigan

On reading again:
Book selling will never quite expire unless reading expires first. The secondhand book business, both as a trade and as a subculture, has existed for centuries because people want to read, and the assumption book dealers work on is that people will always want to read. 
But will they? Seeing the changes that have occurred in the last few years, I sometimes wonder.  
Civilization can probably adjust to the loss of the secondhand book trade, though I don’t think it’s really likely to have to.  
Can it, though, survive the loss of reading?
The question, you see, is not whether human life on earth can survive but whether or not civilization can survive. What do you think?

Bookselling and reading in the high desert:

This is me now, not Larry McMurtry, reporting first on reading in my little winter ghost town and then on my new year’s gig coming up.

While I was back in Michigan last summer, a book club was formed among the women here in Dos Cabezas. I recall that one of the first books they read was My Name Is Ove and that I thought of reading it myself in Michigan so I would feel somewhat connected to my Arizona friends, but then a customer in my bookstore saw the book on my desk and wanted to buy it, and I said bye-bye. Another time, perhaps. After all….

Ghost town book club members decided that, for January, each would read a John Grisham book of their choosing, and since I will be joining the book club for discussion in January, I hope to get my hands on the particular Grisham one of the members highly recommended to me. I have never read a book by John Grisham. — Oh, that’s not true! I remember now that I read Skipping Christmas, or some such, in preparation for a talk I’d been invited to give the Northport Women’s Club on Christmas books. But I have never read what I take to be a more typical Grisham book, so this is an opportunity for me to fill a hole in my knowledge of contemporary book culture.

One friend here in the ghost town indulges herself by devouring books when her husband travels (which reminds me of the way I used to indulge —many years ago! — in the cheap grocery store pastries called cream horns when the Artist was on the road). This neighbor loves physical books, as do I. Another two women, sisters, also love books and bookstores, and they have me salivating to get to Bookmans in Tucson. (One of the men almost always downloads “books” onto his electronic device and only buys a physical book when there is no other option, but I have to cut him some slack, as the most recent physical book he bought was one of my all-time favorites, Bruce Catton’s Waiting for the Morning Train.) I know a couple of other women in the group but don’t know them yet as readers, don’t know their reading tastes and preferences, so it will be interesting to get together in a group to talk about books and reading. I’m really looking forward to this get-together.

(These neighbors don't read, but I love them, anyway.)

Besides joining the neighborhood book group, another winter book activity of mine (outside of reading in and adding to my own private library in the cabin) will be — ta-da! — working as a volunteer one morning a week in the little bookshop in Willcox! Wait until Bruce, my volunteer back in Northport, hears about this! 

Friendly Bookstore, Willcox, Arizona
The Friendly Bookstore is the only bookstore in Willcox. Run by the local Friends of the Library group, its stock consists of donations, library discards, and and a few new books by local authors. (They also sell local honey and jam.) My weekly stint will only be three hours, long enough to be fun and far too short to be anything approaching onerous (if that were even possible). I look forward to getting to know more local residents and to meeting strangers passing through from all over the world.

I don’t know if Willcox has ever supported a for-profit bookstore. Benson, west of Willcox on I-10, had three the first winter we were here, but the two shops dealing in secondhand books have since vanished. (One bookseller retired, I know, but I have no idea what happened to the other, who was a much older woman.) Singing Wind, north of Benson on a ranch and selling new books exclusively, is still in business. Benson also has a nice FOL bookstore on the corner behind their public library.

This Benson, AZ, bookseller retired.
We don't know the story of this Benson bookstore's closing.
Singing Wind is still in business ... 

... selling all new books and specializing in the Southwest.

But Willcox is my town, not Benson, the Sulphur Springs Valley, not San Pedro, my winter home ground. So there are times when I can’t help daydreaming of a bookstore in Willcox, flights of fancy encouraged by ghost town neighbors. When I realized the other day that the FOR SALE sign had disappeared from the most appealing potential bookshop property in town, however, the Artist exclaimed, “Thank God! That was a close call!” 

Oh, not really! Note that this blog, inaugurated in the fall of 2007, is called “Bocks in Northport,” regardless of where my winter peregrinations take me. I have no plans to leave Waukazoo Street! I’m just pleased for now that I’ll have a small part in the life of downtown Willcox, Arizona, and that my role will be that of bookseller, albeit for only three hours a week.

Also, Sarah (in background here) has her Northport fans!


Dawn said...

Should be a fun way for you to get to know more people in your winter town.

P. J. Grath said...

Off to a good start, Dawn, and I will be looking forward to my volunteer stint every week for weeks to come! :)