Over a Quarter of a Million Books Sold at Larry McMurtry's "Last Book Sale"
The Last Book Sale.
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.”
Over a Quarter of a Million Books Sold at Larry McMurtry's "Last Book Sale"
The Last Book Sale.
We asked Mr. Addison whether he was satisfied with the results. He responded, “There were two measures, in my mind, of success. First, I wanted to be sure that Mr. McMurtry was pleased. I think he sensed that. I'll never forget when he said to me, 'You gave me exactly what I wanted. I made the right choice with you. Your staff did a great job as well.' That is when I breathed the biggest sigh of relief. Larry has become a great friend to me. He's such a nice man that I couldn't bear the thought of letting him down. The second measure of success was the feedback from the bidders. I, as well as the staff, were stopped in the street countless times by bidders who just wanted to thank us and tell us we had done a great job and that they had a great time. That was a great feeling. Our consignor was happy, and our bidders were happy, thus, we were happy.
“In terms of dollars, the total hammer price came in around $200,000. Selling so many books in such a short time probably depressed the prices a bit. On the other hand, we sold somewhere between 250,000 to 275,000 books in two days; that alone is no small feat. Out of just over 1,530 lots, about 10% or so didn't sell. And for many of those, there was no clear reason why. There were some great books in all of those lots. I think the volume of books that were sold played a part in some of them not selling. Some lots sold for $50 and some sold for much more. I recall one bringing $1,100. But looking at the numbers, it averaged out to about $140 per lot. The highlight of the sale was the collection of erotic typescripts which sold to Between the Covers for $2,750, plus premium. The most odd thing to me was that the Goodspeed's* sign did not sell. The opening bid was $2,500 for that item. I was shocked there were no takers at that price.
“Larry and I walked into building number 2 where there were many lots of fiction. We were standing there looking at what sold and what didn't sell. By far, the fiction section fared the worst. Larry looked at a sold lot and then at an unsold lot right next to it and said, 'It doesn't make much sense. This lot is just as good as this other one. I don't know why a person bought this one but wouldn't buy this other one.' Larry later stated that perhaps the Serendipity* sale was flooding the market with fiction at the moment.
“Personally, I wanted this sale to be a shelf-lot sale unlike any other. Larry also wanted it to be a memorable event. I think we succeeded in pulling off an auction that will be very tough to duplicate and even more difficult to top. Future shelf-sales may very well be measured against The Last Book Sale by many of the bidders who attended. After this auction, I have to think that the typical auction will seem downright boring.”
Continuing on the future of auctions, Mr. Addison emphasized the importance of turning them into events, not mere rattling off of lots. “Our challenge in the future will be to make our other auctions enjoyable events as well by offering bidders that little bit extra. I think there is a tendency to focus on the business of auctions, and it is easy to forget that auctions are as much entertainment as business. 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. In a time when people can just as easily bid online from the comfort of their home, we want to give people a reason to show up on the auction floor, get involved, participate physically and not just virtually online, and get back in touch with how fun auctions can be.”
As to whether this formula works, we can only look at the results. Small numbers of books can readily be sold, but it is a huge, and sometimes frightening prospect booksellers with large inventories face these days when they seek to pare down inventory or exit the business. Some have found it an enormous challenge just to find someone to take large numbers of books away. On two days in the mid-summer heat of a tiny town in rural Texas, Mr. Addison managed to auction off more than a quarter of a million books. What more is there to say?
So what does the future hold for Larry McMurtry and Booked Up? Mr. Addison explained, “As for the future of Booked Up, they are still in business. I'm not sure Larry would know what to do if he didn't own a bookstore of some sort. Building number 1 is staying open, and it contains around 125,000 to 150,000 books. So, it's no small store!” As for Michael Addison and auctioneers Addison and Sarova, it's back home to Macon, Georgia, for the fall. Their next book auction is scheduled for November 17, and there is much to be done to prepare for what will include both individual antiquarian and collectible books and another 2,000 titles in shelf lots. And, in keeping with the philosophy of the South's only dedicated book auction house, the sale also promises to be an “event.”
Auctioneers Addison and Sarova may be found online at www.addisonsauction.com.
*Goodspeed's was the legendary Boston book store that was open through most of the 20th century. Serendpity Books was the shop of the late Peter Howard from which an enormous inventory is being sold by Bonham's. That fiction would be a slow-moving category is not surprising to us as that has been a particularly challenging field of late.
Kurt Zimmerman, who attended and purchased at The Last Book Sale, has kindly provided us with a link to his detailed description of this one-of-a-kind event. Here it is: www.bookcollectinghistory.com.