Surrounded by old, leather-bound books stacked from floor to ceiling on wooden shelves, Liam McGahern would look the part of a Victorian gentleman, if only he were wearing the right clothes, a 19th century walking suit and a top hat, say, instead of the hoodie and running shoes.
A visit to Patrick McGahern Books, an antiquarian book store on Murray Street in the Byward Market is like a walk back to a time when this country was in its infancy.
Patrick's son Liam presides over the one of a kind shop packed floor to ceiling on old wooden shelves with more than 10,000 rare and valuable books. The store deals primarily in vintage maps and books on the Arctic and Canadian history.
What began largely as a mail-order business has, over the last 53 years, evolved into a mecca for collectors of rare books and one of the most important stores of Canadian history found anywhere. Ninety per cent of McGahern's sales are online and mail order.
“It sounds strange to say, but we don't sell books people necessarily 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, they buy them to have.”
Then, by way of illustration, the 47-year-old recalls how in 2011, he sold a large, curated collection of books on the Franklin expedition for the North-West Passage for $500,000. Collections like that, he admits, are hard to come by, a once in a lifetime event. In his business, condition, and rarity dictate price. The current gem in his crown is a ten-volume set on Cook's voyages for sale for $20,000.
“I tell people I'm an antique dealer,” he says as he goes to the stacks to retrieve a century-old copy of 'MacKenzie's Voyage'.
The size of a flat-screen television to accommodate folded maps and illustrations and McGahern recently sold for $7,500. But it's clear that McGahern's not just in it for the money. He loves reading about the history of Canada and the capital region, the Ottawa River, and the thrilling tales of the brave men who sailed halfway around the globe 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 amazed. “I recently read a story about the first man to snow mobile to the North Pole in 1970. His snow mobile had a seven horsepower motor. When they asked him 30 years later, he said he would never do it again. I get nervous snowmobiling out of cell range. The early explorers travelled the bush for years, with no idea where they were going. Some never came back. I find that bravery fascinating.”
The original McGahern's book store opened in 1969 when Liam's father Patrick bought a used book store in the Glebe, building his inventory to more than 30,000 volumes, most of them focused on the Canadian Arctic, and selling them via mail order and later, through the store's website www.mcgahernbooks.ca
Once regarded as a potential threat to print and the book business, McGahern now uses the Internet to his advantage.
“It used to be hard to find special collectibles, but now if you want a first edition of Hemingway's 'A Farewell to Arms', you can go on multiple websites and find one, unlike 30 years ago, when you had to find a store, hope they had a copy or form a relationship with the seller who would let you know when they find one," he adds. "So, the internet has made accessing books easier, but it's crushing the low end of the book market. Prices have plummeted. However, rare books are holding their price with more international sales. Business is good.”
As comfortable as McGahern is today in an antique book store, as a teen, this was the last thing Liam wanted to do for a living. Not that he turned his back on his father's successful business, young Liam wanted to create his own. However, after graduating from Bishop's, he realized that, like his father, he too shared a fascination with history and historic artefacts.
“I didn't think I'd work here until I matured a little,” McGahern, remembers. “To be honest, I didn't know what I wanted to do, other than go into business. But I've since grown into the business. I come from a long line of entrepreneurs in Shawville and the Valley. Working here has been a gift. It gave me the chance to work with my dad and do something different from everyone else.”