Christopher P. Stephens, Bookman

Chris Stephens has been a book dealer since 1965 - earlier if you count childhood buying and selling.

Stephens has sold major collections to university libraries all over the world. He has operated appealing bookstores in Mt. Carroll, Illinois, Hastings on Hudson, NY and several in NYC, NY. He is a wholesale dealer to other bookstores all over the world.

Chris loves books.

Stephens now maintains a lively internet operation out of his new home in Scranton, PA.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

My Big Friendship with Larry McMurtry

     I've never actually met Larry McMurtry.  He doesn't know who I am, but one time I think he might have glanced over my way.  In spite of this rather slim claim to friendship, I've had a life-long relationship with the man.
     Chris read McMurtry first.  He was instantly sold.  More accurately, Chris was instantly ready to purchase.  The Last Picture Show had been remaindered.   Book Sales Inc, a remainder house with a pleasantly low key operation, had all the available copies of The Last Picture Show.  Chris bought every one.  They were priced at a buck each.  Chris got 40% off for buying almost 200.   This was the late 1960s.  Chris paid more than a month's rent for those books.  It was his first big quantity purchase of a single title.  It was his first really big bet.
     For a few weeks I couldn't breathe well.  I wasn't temperamentally wired for that kind of gamble.  It worked out fine though.
     Chris listed the books at $7.50.  He offered them to Andy Brown of Gotham Book Mart at 40% off if he bought 5 copies outright.  "That's great," said Andy. "I'll take 10."  Chris sold 30 or 40 copies to Gotham that first year and many more copies through his Sixties catalogue.  The last copies sold at a premium several years later.
     I'd resumed normal breathing well before Chris' bet paid off.  I read The Last Picture Show myself.  I was instantly sold.  Or more accurately I was instantly ready to accept a high stakes purchase.
     I read McMurtry's earlier books, Horseman Pass By and Leaving Cheyenne.  McMurtry kept publishing and I kept reading him.  I loved his books.
     At this time, I was helping Chris in his book business, trying to master the mysterious vagaries of keeping house, getting a big kick out of our two young sons, and in slow-motion pursuit of an undergraduate degree at CCNY.  I took one art and one English course each semester.
     The time came for me to write a thesis paper for my advisor, Malcolm Bosse.  I followed my heart and chose Larry McMurtry.  I thought I had something to say.   This was sometime between publications of Moving On (1970) and All My Friends Are Going To Be Strangers (1972).  I'd fancied I'd seen a pattern.  My thesis had one of those ridiculous titles that some 24 year olds think sound academically sophisticated.  Maybe it was: Tracing the Development of Larry McMurtry's  Increasing Understanding of the Complexity of the Female Make Up Through an Examination of Characters in His Books.
     Fortunately I never finished that paper.  I got derailed.  This is how.
     Peter Howard, proprietor of the renowned Serendipity Bookstore in Berkeley California, visited.  He'd come to NYC to  exhibit at a book fair.   There were other book dealers at our apartment that evening too.  Peter mentioned that he was going south to see Larry McMurtry after the show. 
     It turned out that besides being an author, Larry McMurtry was also a regular guy.  He was a book dealer with a store in Washington DC.
     I was overcome at the temerity of my thesis paper.  I changed topics to Dashiell Hammett.  At least he was dead.  Soon I stopped writing presumptuous papers.  I even stopped taking English courses.  I went a different direction.  My masters degree is in mathematics.
     I didn't stop reading though.  And McMurtry didn't stop writing.  I almost had a chance to meet him a couple of years later.
     Chris and I borrowed a car and drove with our sons to Washington DC.  McMurtry's bookstore, Booked Up, was one of our planned stops.  Chris called ahead.  I dropped him off and drove the boys to a park where they could romp and whoop.  After we'd picnicked, I drove back toward Georgetown to pick up Chris.
     I wasn't at my most beautiful to meet a literary hero.  I was travel worn.  My dress was stained with park bits, traces of children's games, and picnic lunch.
     I was almost to Booked Up and hadn't seen any good place to change clothes.    Maybe I should have pulled over to the side and changed in the car but that would have been virtually the same thing as changing clothes on the sidewalk.  Modesty forbade it.
     I was forced to follow the only course open to me under the circumstances.  I changed clothes in the moving car.  It wasn't easy.  Steer with one hand and unbutton with the other.  I was temporarily blind taking one dress off and putting another on.  I was driving crazily, the ordinary problems of driving while changing clothes was confounded by tricky roundabouts.  It was rush hour.  Inconsiderate drivers everywhere were honking at me.
     We reached Booked Up and got out of the car.  I made some minor outfit adjustments not possible from the driver's seat and we went into the bookstore.  Chris and Larry were in a side room, chatting comfortably.  I could see their legs through an open door but didn't go in.  The men came out talking.   I was flustered.  We left without my meeting McMurtry.

     Larry McMurtry continued to write good books.  He also continued to buy and sell books. He moved his book dealer operation back west and created a wonderful book town in Archer City, Texas.  He and Chris Stephens occasionally make book deals.
     His early books are still my favorites but I am an ardent fan of McMurtry's entire opus.

     I'm a much better driver now and a little more mature as well, but if I ever find myself with an opportunity to meet the author/regular guy, I'll still go to a great deal of trouble to be wearing a clean dress.

Booked Up in Archer City, TX

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