Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

Archive for the month “April, 2023”

Freeway Free in Texas: Archer City – a Dream Decayed

Being fans of Larry McMurtry since “Lonesome Dove” and “Terms of Endearment”, my friend W and I were eager to visit his Book City in North Central Texas, although we knew that since his death in 2021 the huge collection of antiquarian books for sale in his home town of Archer Cit had been scaled back.

In Georgetown, waiting for W to pick me up for the start of our North Central Texas adventure, I am on the internet. I happen on a story about Larry McMurtry’s memorabilia being up for auction, which mentions casually that his bookstore is closed.    I google around and find that Booked Up is “Temporarily Closed.”  A further exploration reveals that Booked Up is now operating solely online, and the properties in Archer City have been sold to Chip Gaines, a Texas media personality who specializes in renovations of “fixer-uppers.” What would be left of Larry McMurtry’s dream?

We drive north west under an amazing sky of clouds that look like rolls of cotton batting spread out like fat fingers across the sky and the horizon visible in every direction, and arrive at Archer City.

It must have been a small miracle for the town when Larry McMurtry came back home and began throwing money into rejuvenating the place with his dream book store. And then the Black Swan – Amazon – came along and sucked all the life out of the business. Why travel to the other side of Nowhere when you could order the book shipped to you online?

The commemorative T-shirt above sells the original vision – The picturesque sandstone Courthouse, with its matching jail converted into a County Museum, the Booked Up storefront, Royal Theatre marquee, and “Home of Larry McMurtry” prominently featured,

The first impression of Archer City is like imagining what Brigadoon was like after the magic spell was broken. All of McMurtry’s bookstores are closed, The Lonesome Dove B&B, converted from a former hospital building, has closed. The iconic Royal Theatre which was featured in the classic film “Last Picture Show” has had its marquee restored, and its neon sign still glows, but walking around the corner reveals that it is a hollow shell. The plan to turn the old jail into an atmospheric County Museum has been shelved, the site surrounded by a cyclone fence, and the place has pretty near returned to its post-oil pre-McMurtry status.

Coming next: What to do in Archer City now that the bookstore is closed.


Freeway Free in Texas: A Big Dream in Big Sky Country

Larry McMurtry had a dream. He had had considerable success as an author and screenwriter, and he had a renowned antiquarian book store, Booked Up, in Virginia, near Washington DC. But “the sky in Virginia is too small.” McMurtry was lonesome for the endless horizons of North Texas, where he grew up in the small (pop. 1200) ranching town of Archer City. He dreamed of creating a marvelous bookshop there, the kind of store that booklovers would come to as a destination, no matter how out of the way.

And then lightning struck, in the form of a blockbuster novel, “Lonesome Dove,” which was made into a hit TV series, and was followed by several nearly – as-successful book and TV sequels. McMurtry had all the money he needed to make his dream real. He went back to Archer City and purchased what had been an oil well equipment repair shop, a former Ace hardware store, and two other buildings with ample warehouse space behind. He labeled each building Booked Up #1, #2, #3, and #4, established that each would specialize in particular kinds of books (literature, History, biography, travel, etc.) and brought in an inventory of over 400,000 books.

For a while the dream sparkled. Archer City had originally been a ranching town, then enjyed a brief oil boom which killed off most of the ranching, and now it seemed that Booked Up might revive it once more as a tourist center. The old Spur Hotel was refurbished, a vintage house near the center of town became a B & B called the Lonesome Dove, the old Mobil gas station became a Visitor’s Information Center, and the community planned to repurpose the old County Jail as a County Museum.

Then two unfortunate and unforeseen events happened: The first was the black swan which upended the bookseller business: the Internet, with online bookstores like Ex Libris and Amazon. The second: McMurtry had a heart attack. The two events convinced McMurtry that instead of leaving his heirs a golden legacy in the form of Booked Up, the store was more likely to be an albatross around their necks. He decided to sell off much of the inventory. After the sale, 150,000 books remained in the former Ace Hardware building, Booked Up #1.

And then the third blow: Larry McMurtry died.

He left the remaining inventory, plus the four properties, to the woman who had been running the bookstore for him. Could one storefront alone maintain the cachet that McMurtry had provided? W and I, both of us fans of used bookstores and McMurtry, decide to go find out.

(To Be Continued)


My debut novel, Fox Spirit, is appearing episode by episode on my sister blog, New episodes arrive every Monday and Thursday. They’re short, so you’re not too late to check them out, and sign up for future happenings. Here’s a link to the first episode:

Freeway-Free in Texas: Hitting the Trail in Georgetown

Despite the stereotype of Texas being more hospitable to pickup trucks than to pedestrians, I found some good trail walking in suburban Georgetown. Not far from the residential area where my brother lives with his family is Lake Georgetown, and a well maintained trail travels from several access points to the lake.

The trail winds through wooded green space, cuts under a sculptural freeway overpass, and continues past the dam which forms the reservoir onto a circular trail that winds either through the adjacent park or, for the more ambitious, all the way around the lake.

My brother’s neighborhood also features a hidden trail which winds along a branch of the San Gabriel River behind homes mostly facing the other way. Being a guest, I grabbed my walking stick and ignored the “PRIVATE TRAIL, NO PUBLIC ACCESS” sign at the head.  Almost immediately I blundered onto a herd of four deer, almostt completely camouflaged by trees and shadow.  Georgetown was still recovering from a massive ice storm in February of this year which had de-branched or toppled many trees in the area. I detoured around several fallen trees, and walked carefully across assorted stepping stone bridges, counting lupine and wild pea and dandelion and paintbrush and other recognized and non-familiar flora. I finally stopped by a dainty pink and yellow columbine growing amid the branches of a fallen tree that blocked further passage.  I didn’t get quite as far as the end of the path which I had set as a goal, but as I returned I encountered another larger herd of deer plus my nephew coming to find me. Very nice (both).

My debut novel, Fox Spirit, is appearing episode by episode on my sister blog, New episodes arrive every Monday and Thursday. They’re short, so you’re not too late to check them out, and sign up for future happenings. Here’s the link to the first episode:

Freeway Free in Texas: Georgetown Underground

What do you do on a cold damp day in Georgetown, Texas? Go to a warm damp cave.

Inner Space Cavern is an attraction just outside of Georgetown, discovered back in 1963 when the road smiths were drilling for the supports of the I-35 highway overpass. I tried to imagine the reaction of the road crew when, after drilling through forty feet of limestone, the drill suddenly dropped another thirty feet unimpeded. I also tried to imagine the courage of the drill operator who rode the drill bit down a two-foot-wide shaft into the darkness below, not knowing what might greet him.

What greeted him was a pile of fossilized bat guano, and a spacious room sparkling with salt-encrusted stalagtites and stalagmites. The highway crews decided that thirty feet of granite was deep enough to anchor the pillars supporting the overpass, and the building of Interstate 35 proceeded according to precedent.

There was no obvious entrance to the cavern. The bats had gotten in through a sinkhole that had since filled itself in. But word of the underground palace got out, and within three years an access was created and the cavern was open to the public.

Inner Space Cavern now attracts thousands of visitors annually, and if your youngsters chafe at waiting for your alloted tour time (backlog can be over two hours on a busy weekend), outdoor activities include a small playground, picnic tables, some exotic animals to watch and a zip line.

On last Saturday of spring Break, a whole bunch of other people had the same idea as we did. We bought tickets for the 4:20 tour at 2pm, watched our token teenager shivering on the Sabre tooth zip line (Brrrr! it was a cold March day!), went back to the house for snacks and an hour of March Madness, and then returned to the cavern for a one mile, one and a half hour tour. “There are thirty feet of solid rock above us” assured the guide. Bats had returned to the cavern as soon as it became accessible, and they are treated as an added attraction, with postcards available in the gift shop of and a video extolling the virtues of bats running non-stop in the waiting lobby.

“Don’t worry,” said the guide. “The bats are asleep and probably won’t poop on you.”


If you show up in the morning and are faced with a two hour delay before your tour is called, you could do worse than go for brunch or lunch at BiG (Brookwood in Georgetown) a restaurant/gift shop staffed by “adults with special needs” who cook deliciously and craft lovely items for sale in the adjacent gift shop. The website does not show the brunch menu, but I can vouch for the avocado toast with fruit cup, and my friend’s spinach/mushroom quiche also looked seductive.

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