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Texas Bookish Destinations

A reader’s ramble through the Lone Star State
Written by Kay Ellington.

Denton Books 054Every fall the streets around the Texas State Capitol sprout huge white event tents, and crowds of booklovers—some 40,000 visitors of all ages—come from miles around to hear hundreds of popular authors discuss their works, snag signed copies, and enjoy food, fun, and live music. The Texas Book Festival, now in its 21st year, is one of the few such events in the nation to invite readers inside a capitol building—and it definitely puts Austin at the top of Texas “bookish destinations” for literary travelers.

Check out lists of Texas’ top bookstores and classic Texas books at www.texashighways.com.

What makes a place a literary destination? Fans might seek out a setting of a well-known novel, such as that of Larry McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show in Archer City, or a great independent bookstore like Front Street Books in Alpine or Recycled Books, Records, & CDs in Denton. They might be drawn by a work of art like the often-photographed sculpture of Old Yeller and his master in Mason, hometown of author Fred Gipson.

It might be an institution like the enchilada-red public library in downtown San Antonio, co-host of the annual San Antonio Book Festival. Or, a site like the infamous Texas School Book Depository in Dallas, now open to visitors as the Sixth Floor Museum. It might be a once-a-year spectacle that’s worth the trip, like the George West Storyfest (November 4-6 in George West, “the Storytelling Capital of Texas”).

As a lifelong reader and now editor and publisher of Lone Star Literary Life, a website and email newsletter dedicated to Texas books and writers, I’ve planned my travels around my interest in books for years. Here are some of my favorite Texas bookish destinations:

Austin

The Texas Book Festival is only one reason for booklovers to mark Austin on their itineraries. Slated for November 5-6 this year, it will feature festival co-founder Laura Bush with her daughter Jenna Bush Hager as authors of Our Great Big Backyard, which celebrates the centennial of the National Park Service. More than 280 writers “from celebrity chefs to brilliant debut novelists to internet celebrities, political writers, and comedians are on the roster this year,” says Julie Wernersbach, the festival’s literary director.

Austin is also home to a bounty of chain and independent bookstores of all stripes—from the two-story stalwart BookPeople to BookWoman, the city’s longtime feminist bookstore. It’s possible to catch a reading at one of them any given day or night, or at offbeat spots like the Whip In or the Spider House Ballroom, where open mics and spoken-word events draw crowds.

The city’s rich university life also means terrific opportunities for bookish visitors. The University of Texas’ Harry Ransom Center for the Humanities, which holds a renowned collection of manuscripts and rare books (including a Gutenberg Bible and three copies of the Shakespeare First Folio, the 1623 collection of the Bard’s plays), is open to the public for exhibitions and tours.

One of Austin’s best-known literary residences is the William Sidney Porter House, the downtown cottage where the author otherwise known as O. Henry lived in the 1890s. The historic structure houses the O. Henry Museum, which explores Porter’s life in Austin and hosts literary events, including the annual Pun-Off World Championships each May.

Abilene

NCICL 04v2Abilene is the gateway to West Texas, where cedar and live oak trees give way to mesquite, and it’s also the official Storybook Capital of Texas. The Storybook Sculpture Project brightens the city’s downtown with lively depictions of characters like the Grinch, Man in the Moon, and Jack Frost. Young readers—and those who once were—can also delight in the National Center for Children’s Illustrated Literature (NCCIL), known colloquially as “the Nickel.” Visit in June and enjoy the Children’s Art & Literacy Festival, featuring a storybook character parade, readings from nationally recognized illustrators, and other family activities.

Abliene is also home to the West Texas Book Festival, which celebrated its 16th year in September. Bookseller, author, and journalist Glenn Dromgoole remembers the festival’s launch. “None of us had ever even been to a book festival, so we really had no idea what we were doing,” he says. “We just started inviting authors to come.” More than 100 of them did—and a popular Texas literary tradition was born. Glenn and his wife, Carol, also run the Texas Star Trading Co., a bookstore and gift shop specializing in all things Texas.

San Angelo

In San Angelo, friends and fans of longtime resident Elmer Kelton raised more than $120,000 in donations to build a statue of the city’s favorite literary son. The statue at the stylish downtown library pays tribute to the Western Writers of America’s “Best All-Time Western Writer,” as do a downtown mural and a water lily variety named in his honor in the city’s International Waterlily Collection.

Looking for collectible Kelton books? The Cactus Book Shop caters to aficionados of Western literature and Texana. Owner Felton Cochran posts on his website, “I’m particularly proud of my Texas County and Regional History section, which takes up over 70 linear feet of shelving!” Also downtown, Eggemeyer’s General Store is a bustling mercantile in the heart of the city, where many a Texas cookbook author has signed books for the store’s foodie clientele.

Midland-Odessa

If you believe there’s nothing to Midland and Odessa but pump jacks and pipe yards, think again. In the Permian Basin, which has a population of more than 300,000 residents, the user-friendly Midland Centennial Library brings in some of the state’s leading authors to interact with readers. Also in Midland, the George W. Bush Childhood Home offers children a free book with each visit. And events like Midland’s Permian Basin Writers’ Workshop and Odessa’s Books in the Basin invite book fans to appreciate the talents of writers who hail from the area, such as Stephen Graham Jones, Patrick Dearen, and Leila Meacham.

“Odessa defies expectations,” says Randy Ham, director of the Odessa Council for the Arts & Humanities. “People think of us as oil and football, but we are so much more.” Indeed, you can visit Ratliff Stadium, which inspired the book Friday Night Lights, as well as the Globe Theatre at Odessa College—a full-size replica of London’s historic Globe Theatre—which stages Shakespeare’s plays and other dramatic works.

El Paso

Not only is El Paso in a different time zone, its international flavor yields an experience unlike any other in the state. El Pasoan Tom Lea, an author and artist who wrote the novels The Brave Bulls and The Wonderful Country as well as numerous nonfiction classics, has left his legacy throughout the city. The downtown El Paso Public Library building is itself a worthy starting point, with its celebration of local artists and its excellent Border Heritage Collection. In the atrium behind the modern entrance is the original 1954 foyer with Lea’s 1956 mural Southwest, a rendering of the regional landscape. One of the best vistas overlooking El Paso and Juárez, Mexico, is from Tom Lea Upper Park, situated above El Paso High School. Or call ahead to visit the Tom Lea Institute and see his archives. The Institute is the springboard for a wider exploration of the Tom Lea Trail, which currently includes Lea murals in 11 Texas cities.

National Book Award winner and Rhode Island native Cormac McCarthy came to El Paso in the 1970s to write in “one of the last real cities left in America” and achieved both international renown and a devoted following. The author of the Border Trilogy series lived in a one-story adobe home on Coffin Avenue that later served as a touchstone for author and artist Peter Josyph’s essays in the book Cormac McCarthy’s House. Subsequent owners renovated the house, which is unassuming and unmarked. Though McCarthy departed El Paso some years back, his legend thrives here.

For a quirky book-scout’s excursion, stop into Martin’s Book Store at 2120 Montana. You just might be rewarded with the discovery of volumes by El Paso literary lights—Daniel Chacon, Dagoberto Gilb, Sarah McCoy, Rigoberto González, Leon Claire Metz, Benjamin Alire Sáenz, Estela Portillo Trambley, Sergio Troncoso, and publishers/writers Bobby and Lee Byrd among them—that will open the door to a new appreciation of this border city.

Hawkins

Across the state near the East Texas Piney Woods town of Hawkins, you can have your hair done and talk Texas books at the same time. Kathy L. Murphy’s Beauty and the Book is likely the only combination hair salon-bookstore in the country. It’s also the headquarters of the Pulpwood Queens and Timber Guys book clubs.

Sixteen years ago, Murphy, a book publisher’s representative with a bent for big hair, started the book club out of her salon with six members. Members from the club’s nearly 600 chapters converge for Murphy’s annual “Girlfriend Weekend,” a gathering for gals and guys each January complete with tiaras, pink boas, and a book-character costume ball. This coming January 12-15 in Nacogdoches, the 2017 Girlfriend Weekend will honor the late Southern novelist Pat Conroy.

“It’s the only annual meeting of book clubs in the world, and more than 50 authors will appear,” Murphy says. “Pat was such a great guy when he came to the Pulpwood Queens meeting before. He really interacted with the readers, and we loved him.”

Kyle

The contribution of women to Texas’ literary development is emphasized in Kyle at the Katherine Anne Porter Literary Center. Porter was born on May 15, 1890, in Indian Creek. At age two, following the death of her mother, she moved with her father to her grandmother’s modest house in Kyle. The restored home, furnished with period décor, hosts tours by appointment and visiting writer events throughout the year.

Porter left Texas in 1915, moving to Chicago to start a career as journalist and writer, during which she won the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award. Her first short story was published in 1922, and her first collection, Flowering Judas and Other Stories, in 1930. Her 1962 novel Ship of Fools made the bestseller lists for months—and made her a millionaire.

Houston

No list of Texas bookish destinations would be complete without a nod to the state’s largest city. Houston is rich in opportunities for bookish travelers. More than two dozen independent and chain bookstores dot the city’s literary landscape. Brazos Bookstore, Blue Willow Books, Murder By The Book, River Oaks Bookstore, and Kaboom Books are among those regularly featuring author events.

Houston is a particularly rich locale for emerging writers, a trend partly due to the influence of the University of Houston Creative Writing Program. Today, literary arts organizations like Writespace, the Houston Writers’ Guild, and Inprint also cultivate local writing talent.

Booklovers will want to stay tuned for the reopening of The Printing Museum after a May 2016 fire prompted a temporary closure. Founded by four printers who wanted to share their vast collections of printed books and documents with the community, the museum first opened in 1982.

Archer City

ArcherC 12Archer City may be one of the smallest towns on this list, but it’s a bookish destination that can’t be ignored. Native son Larry McMurtry has been awarded Pulitzer, Grammy, and Emmy prizes for writing inspired by his life in Texas
and his Panhandle Plains hometown. The movies The Last Picture Show and Texasville—both based on McMurtry novels—were filmed in Archer City. The Royal Theater, the historic cinema highlighted in both films, remains open as
a venue for theater and musical performances.

McMurtry, once a book scout, had bought up much of his hometown’s retail space and singlehandedly transformed Archer City into a “book town,” opening multiple Booked Up stores, where visitors could skim seemingly endless shelves in search of literary treasure. Although the author famously downsized in 2012, his Booked Up No. 1 and No. 2 stores on South Center Street remain open by appointment, with some 200,000 titles still available to peruse.

In June 2017, Archer City will host a Larry McMurtry Festival in the author’s honor. Fans of Lonesome Dove and other Texas classics will want to mark their calendars for a red-letter day in this tip-top Texas bookish destination.

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