If the vibe of Patrick McGahern’s Antiquarian Bookstore seems out of step with the rest of the world, so be it.
Surrounded by old leather-bound books stacked floor to ceiling on wooden shelves, Liam McGahern would look like a Victorian gentleman, if he wore the right clothes, a 19and century walking suit and a top hat, for example, instead of the hoodie and running shoes.
A visit to Patrick McGahern Books, an antiquarian bookstore on Murray Street in the ByWard Market, is like a stroll through a time when this country was in its infancy.
Patrick’s son, Liam, presides over this one-of-a-kind shop filled floor-to-ceiling on old wooden shelves with over 10,000 rare and valuable books. The store primarily sells vintage maps and books on the Arctic and Canadian history.
What began largely as a mail-order business has become, over the past 53 years, a mecca for rare book collectors and one of the most important Canadian history stores anywhere. . Ninety percent of McGahern’s sales are made online and by mail order.
“It sounds strange to say, but we don’t necessarily sell books that people want to read,” McGahern says. “We sell books that people have a connection to. It’s not about reading. Most people don’t buy our books to read them, they buy them to have them.
Then, for illustration, the 47-year-old recalls how, in 2011, he sold a large collection of books on the Franklin Expedition for the Northwest Passage for $500,000. Collections like this, he admits, are hard to find, a once-in-a-lifetime event. In his business, condition and rarity dictate price. The current jewel in its crown is a ten-volume set of Cook’s travels on sale for $20,000.
“I tell people I’m an antique dealer,” he says, heading to the shelves to pick up a century-old copy of “MacKenzie’s Journey.”
The size of a flat-screen TV to accommodate folded maps and artwork, and McGahern recently sold for $7,500. But it’s clear that McGahern isn’t just in it for the money. He loves to read about the history of Canada and the Capital Region, the Ottawa River, and the exciting stories of the brave men who sailed halfway around the world to explore Canada and the Arctic.
“I’m fascinated by historic men like Cook and Franklin who risked death to explore the new world,” McGahern says, somewhat surprised. “I recently read the story of the first man to travel to the North Pole by snowmobile in 1970. His snowmobile had a seven horsepower engine. When they asked him 30 years later, he said he would never do it again. I get nervous on a snowmobile out of range of the cells. Early explorers roamed the bush for years, not knowing where they were going. Some never came back. I find this bravery fascinating.
The first McGahern’s bookstore opened in 1969 when Liam’s father, Patrick, bought a used bookstore in the Glebe, building its inventory to over 30,000 volumes, most focused on the Canadian Arctic, and the selling by mail order and later, through the store’s website www.mcgahernbooks.ca
Once seen as a potential threat to the printing and book industry, McGahern now uses the internet to his advantage.
“Before, it was hard to find special collectibles, but now if you want a first edition of Hemingway’s ‘Farewell to Arms,’ you can go to several websites and find one, unlike there. 30s when you had to find a store, hopefully they had a copy or build a relationship with the seller that will let you know when they find one,” he adds. “The internet has made books easier to access, but it’s crushing the low end of the book market. Prices have fallen. Rare books, however, are holding their price with more international sales. Business is good.”
As comfortable as McGahern is today in an antique bookstore, as a teenager it was the last thing Liam wanted to do in life. Not that he had turned his back on his father’s thriving business, young Liam wanted to start his own. However, after graduating from Bishop’s, he realized that, like his father, he too shared a fascination with history and historical artifacts.
“I didn’t think I would work here until I had matured a bit,” recalls McGahern. “To be honest, I didn’t know what I wanted to do other than start a business. But since then, I have grown in the business. I come from a long line of Shawville and Valley entrepreneurs. Working here has been a gift. It gave me the chance to work with my father and do something different from others.