Texas Travel

City Spotlight: Archer City

By Peter Simek 4.6.20

Archer City is a town forever linked with its most famous son: legendary writer Larry McMurtry. For those who love McMurtry’s work, a trip to Archer City is a Texas pilgrimage. Not only is the city the setting for some of McMurtry’s work, but travelers are rewarded with the opportunity to browse one of the world’s most legendary bookshops.

For years, McMurtry’s Booked Up took over multiple storefronts in the tiny town, offering some 450,000 titles to browse. Those who hoped to bump into the master author himself were greeted by a sign that told them McMurtry stops by the shop “at his whim.” Archer City’s history is rooted firmly in the stories of the American West and the rise of Texas that McMurtry memorably documented in his many novels, essays, and screenplays.

Julia M. Photography

Frontier Town

Archer County was founded by the Texas legislature in 1858, and the site of today’s Archer City was set aside to be the county seat. But settlers didn’t begin to move to the area in earnest until the 1870s. Early-comers encountered the raw, untamed expanse of the southern prairie, which was inhabited by enormous herds of buffalo and antelope and supported numerous indigenous tribes, including Kiowas and Comanches. Buffalo hunters came first, followed by cattlemen, who helped establish ranching grounds and laid the way for future settlers.

Julia M. Photography

Agricultural Hub

By the 1890s, Archer City boasted a handful of churches, an ornate stone courthouse, and a jail. Located 25 miles south of Wichita Falls, it was an agricultural hub with stagecoach and mail routes to its nearest neighbor. But the town’s fate rested on the hope that the railroad would soon arrive. In the early 20th century, it finally did — along with the oil industry, after wells were discovered near the town. The stage was set for a mini-boom.

Julia M. Photography

Quintessential Small Town

The population of Archer City climbed in the first decades of the 20th century as more oil wells were discovered, and the small town experienced a minor boom. By the middle of the century, Archer City was a town of cattlemen and wildcatters. The movie theater in the 19th-century town square was the center of life, and it attracted a handful of banks and other businesses. By 1970, the population pushed 2,000.

Julia M. Photography

Memorialized in Film

This is the town that Larry McMurtry grew up in — a small, tight-knit, sometimes claustrophobic, and deeply-rooted home that was profoundly defined by the Texas experience. It inspired the fictionalized small Texas town of McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show (later a film starring Cybil Shepherd), and the closing of a movie theater in the novel represented the slow decline of the town, making Archer City a stand-in for so many Texas towns as their way of life faded in the second half of the 20th century.

Julia M. Photography

An Unlikely Destination

Ironically, what has helped bolster Archer City’s fate is its close association with McMurtry’s stories, which didn’t always paint small town life in the most favorable light. Today, book lovers flock to Archer City. The old Royal Theater has been restored and reopened, and it now hosts regular performances of the Texasville Opry. Although McMurtry downsized his once-gargantuan bookstore, the famous Booked Up still exists in a storefront and warehouse off the main square, and it features an incredible collection of rare and scholarly titles.

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