“I’m never going into the book business,” a young Liam McGahern insisted to his father Patrick on one of many book-scouting sessions disguised as family vacations. What a liar that Liam proved to be. Not only is he now running the Ottawa rare book store that his father started in 1969, his doing so has established one of the first book store “dynasties” in Canada; at least according to David Mason, a noted Toronto rare book seller. The small store is a destination for business travellers and Ottawa residents alike. The visitors are those who have purchased from a Patrick McGahern catalogue, and are eager to experience the tall stacks of printed treasures in person.
In 1969, Patrick McGahern bought a small paperback store called the Book Boutique in Ottawa’s Glebe neighborhood for $1000. Spending decades in the increasingly fashionable Glebe, Patrick McGahern Books was a general used bookstore that specialized in Canada and the Arctic. Three years ago the McGaherns relocated again, this time to the third floor of a handsome low-rise building in the Byward Market to focus exclusively on rare books.
Liam McGahern explains that most rare book sales come not from foot traffic, but from the detailed specialty catalogues that are sent by mail and email to a network of contacts built over forty years in the business. The third-floor location has led to self-selection amongst the walk-in customers. The flights of steps ensures that only true book-lovers will find their way into the shop. On the Thursday afternoon when we spoke, one such book-lover made his way up the stairs carrying a folio sized treatise on the exploration of Guyana in the early nineteenth century, complete with twelve colored plates. The McGaherns purchased it and the beautiful book likely won’t last long on one of the shop’s elegant wooden bookshelves before arriving in the library of a lucky collector.
The rise of the net, while damaging to generalist shops, has allowed specialists like the McGaherns to thrive. Catalogue sales of Arctic and travel books are booming. While the trend is encouraging, Liam McGahern is worried about sustaining the shop into the future. The elder McGahern, who still works full time, is dismissive of the claim that people will stop buying books. He’s been hearing for his whole career that the end is nigh but reminds his son that there will always be people with newly paid off mortgages and empty nests, seeking an outlet for their time, energy, and disposable income. For many, collecting books will be that outlet.
When asked why he chose to go into the family business despite his early protestations, McGahern explains that he valued the opportunity to run a business, be his own boss and make his own decisions. “And besides,” he says, “in this business, we get to own the books of kings. Even if it’s only for a little while.”