Opening of the Mike Cox Texas Collection in 6K volume at the San Marcos Public Library

SAN MARCOS – Mike Cox acquired his first Texan book in 1954 when he was a freshman.

It was the 1947 action story, “Old Fort Davis,” by pulp fiction writer and secular historian Barry Scobee, namesake of Barry Scobee Mountain, located not far from Fort Davis.

His maternal grandfather, LA Wilke, an old-school Texas journalist and storyteller, bought the book for the young Cox after a family visit to the fort, the ruins of which are surprisingly well preserved by the arid western Texas at the foot of the Davis Mountains.

Cox kept the book. And many more.

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Over a long career as a journalist, author, historian, bookseller, and spokesperson, Cox collected more than 6,000 Texana volumes.

Completing a deal struck in 2017, Cox donated this collection — which on the open market could be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars — to the San Marcos Public Library.

The neatly dust-jacketed books have now been cataloged and stored in a special room in the newly expanded library. The public is welcome to read them, although, as many volumes are uncommon, uncommon, or rare, they are stored in “closed stacks”. You must first consult the catalog of the library’s online collection, then make an appointment to read specific books on site. They cannot be extracted.

From reader to writer

Cox, 73, comes from a long line of readers, writers and book lovers. His parents met in 1946 while covering a sensational murder trial in Sweetwater for competing newspapers. His mother, Betty Wilke Cox (1928-2006), was a librarian by profession, and his father, Bill G. Cox (1926-2000), a journalist; both were also freelance writers.

Mike Cox's grandfather, LA Wilke, an old-school Texas journalist, encouraged his grandson's interest in Texas history.

An Amarillo native, born in 1948, Cox began his fledgling journalism career at the American-Statesman of Austin in the 1960s while still in high school. He sold his first story to The Cattleman magazine in 1964.

While a student at Angelo State University, he worked for the San Angelo Standard-Times. After transferring to Texas Tech University, he took classes during the day and worked nights at the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal.

During the 1970s and early 1980s, Cox was an all-around reporter in Austin at the American-Statesman. After accepting a position as spokesperson for the Department of Public Safety and later the Texas Press Association, he went on to contribute a column on Texas history that appeared in the Austin newspaper. until 2013.

I was religiously looking for his column.

Along the way, Cox, who was inducted into the Texas Institute of Letters in 1993, wrote more than 35 books, almost all of them devoted to Texas history. Cox writes in a clear, concise, and unforced style that makes even familiar Texas lore a pleasure to read.

Cox estimates he has written over 7 million words of non-fiction. His papers are now held in the Wittliff Collections at Texas State University in San Marcos and Baylor University in Waco.

Through the efforts of Arro Smith, Technical Services Manager at the San Marcos Library, I became aware of this treasure and was able to meet Cox shortly before the opening of the Mike Cox Texas Collection on April 23. .

Memories of a book hunter

Chatting in the silent room filled with Texas stories, I wasn’t surprised that Cox had already started writing about his life as a book collector. He shared an incomplete digital memoir, “Book Hunter: Collecting and Letting Go,” which ends with finding a “forever home” for his library.

“My life has been a bustling soap opera with many chapters, some good, some bad, but there has always been one constant theme: books,” Cox writes. “I have been a book reader, book collector, book seller, book reviewer and book writer.

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“Unfortunately, my metaphorical book is only in its final chapters. I hope I still have several long chapters to go, but a book – or a life – cannot last forever.”

Among his earliest memories, Cox recalls an adult outside the family who fanned the flames of his interest in Texas history, Martine Holbrook, his seventh grade homeroom teacher at Lanier Junior-Senior High School (now Juan Navarro High) in Austin.

Mike Cox's first Texas history book was

“Miss Holbrook was a teacher for quite a while and she was good at it,” Cox writes. “Beyond what we learned from her and our textbook, each student received a free copy of ‘Texas History Movies’.”

These comics, provided by Mobil Oil Company, oversimplified the Texas story, but pushed Cox deeper into the subject.

Holbrook encouraged each student to keep a notebook on a particular aspect of Texas history. Remembering road trips with his grandfather, Cox chose the old forts of Texas.

“In compiling it, I painstakingly copied the history of each fort from Grandfather’s two-volume ‘Handbook of Texas’, cut articles from newspapers and magazines related to the subject, and collected all I could put in my notebook about ancient forts in Texas,” he wrote. “By the time we returned our notebooks for grading, mine had everything from a taped sheet my grandmother picked up at Fort Bliss in El Paso to postcards from the Fort Clark Ranch in Bracketville.

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“I had collected so much material that I ended up with two notebooks, the only two-volume set anyone had put together.”

A writer – or at least a researcher at this point – is born.

From old forts in Texas, Cox moved on to collecting gear on the Alamo, treasure hunting, and historical markers. He divided his growing library thematically into sections such as “Texas Ranching”, “Texas Outlaws and Lawmen”, “Texas Folklore”, “Texas Humor”, and “Texas Letters”.

“Gathering my collection from Texas, I acquired books in every way possible except armed robbery,” Cox says with a laugh. “The first books in my library came as a gift, either from a family member or a friend, just because, either for Christmas or my birthday. Others were books that I managed to convince my grand- parents or my parents to buy for me.

The San Marcos Public Library expansion, designed by Dewberry Architects, was completed in May 2021. A total of 28,000 square feet was added to the existing 27,000 square feet.  This gave the library the opportunity to accept the Mike Cox Texas collection.

“Then, when I was in college and had some pocket money to spend, I started buying books on my own, from local department stores, chain stores, independent bookstores, and college bookstores. Fortunately, in the 1960s most hardcover books were under $5. Of course, back then, a $5 bill had the purchasing power of $45 in today’s dollars.

“Given how much they appreciated, my only regret is not buying more Texana.”

Later in his career in journalism, Cox acquired some of his books by editing them for various newspapers, including the American-Statesman, where his “Texana” column ran from 1982 to 2013.

In these memoirs, Cox includes a section of advice on book collecting. He also shares stories of becoming a more serious collector and discovering that buying and selling books could at least give him enough money to buy more books. He set up pop-up booths at weekend book and paper shows and owned a share of the Austin Book and Paper Show.

With a seasoned bookseller, Tom Munnerlyn, he opened a store, State House Books, popular with collectors, at 1604 S. Congress Ave., a stone’s throw from a booming second-hand bookstore, South Congress Books.

Mike Cox has organized his Texas books by topic.  Once he donated the 6,000 volumes to the San Marcos Public Library, they were cataloged and stored under the Dewey Decimal System with these beautiful nameplates.

The crowds and the money, however, never seemed to materialize at State House. Eventually he sold himself to Munnerlyn.

Cox ends the memoir with a chapter about abandoning his library.

“On paper, my Texana was worth several hundred thousand dollars,” Cox writes. “But even so, my library was beginning to be as much trouble as it was fun. It had become increasingly difficult to make room for my collection, which at its peak filled two large rooms in my house with almost every square centimeter of wall space occupied by shelves.

“To maximize what my shelves could hold, I had stacked my books horizontally, a trick I learned from the late bibliophile Lon Tinkle. Eventually I had to come up with a plan B.”

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Various public libraries in Fort Worth, Brenham, Dripping Springs and Wimberley have expressed interest in acquiring the Mike Cox Texas Collection. They were all short of either money or space or both.

Cox signed a letter of agreement with the San Marcos Public Library in early 2017, four years before the completion of its new expansion. Next comes boxing, unboxing and cataloging. It was four long years.

“At least I know my books will live as I put them together,” Cox writes. “I can be even happier that they are useful to future researchers, from genealogists and students to writers and historians. I know I did the right thing, but I repeat that it is the ‘one of the hardest things I’ve ever faced.

“To end on a glass-half-full note, I have no intention of stopping collecting books. As long as I can still walk around and think I’m going to seek rare, rare, or bibliographically unknown Texanas, in from old newspapers to brochures to hard and soft cover books.

“The only difference is that I’ll be adding any additional Texas-related items I come across — well, I might keep a few titles around for a while — to my collection in San Marcos.”

Michael Barnes writes about the people, places, culture, and history of Austin and Texas. He can be contacted at [email protected]

Mike Cox Texas Collection

Or: San Marcos Public Library, 625 E. Hopkins St., San Marcos

How much: Free, by appointment only, first check the library’s online catalog for the collection

Information: 512-393-8200; sanmarcostx.gov/586/Library

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