Books on Wheels

5th Dimension Books and Unbound: Sin Fronteras bring back the bookmobile and bring the books to you

Photo by John Anderson

"The ability to remember the past helps us plan the future." – Margaret Atwood

5th Dimension Bookmobile

For book lovers, it's easy to conjure that familiar intoxicating scent of aged paper and ink conjoined to deliver a story. "It's strange to hear people come in and say, 'I love the smell of gasoline and books.' But we totally get that," says Patrick McMahon. His wife and business partner Sukyi McMahon agrees: "You just can't bottle or duplicate that scent." Step inside their 1987 Chevy P30 bookmobile, 5th Dimension Books (nicknamed 5DB), for a whiff of instant nostalgia, with a futuristic twist.

The McMahons are bringing back the bookmobile experience. "Kids just don't know about the bookmobile anymore, and it's important for them to experience this thing that their parents and grandparents had." Usually parked at its home base of 43rd and Duval, right next to Quack's, the mobile bookstore specializes in used, rare, out-of-print, and collectible books in science fiction, fringe, and fantasy. The wacky little book bus includes genre-centric reads from a truly unbelievable collection whose backstory is as far-out as the stories themselves. "People come in and ask where we get the books from. 'Is it Half Price Books or garage sales?' And we're like, 'Ohhh, no,'" says Sukyi. "'What you're looking at is a single person's life work.'"

When longtime Texas Tech University chemistry professor Dr. John N. Marx died in 2012, he left behind one of the largest private collections of science-fiction books in the world and possibly the largest paperback collection in the U.S. His son Sam, who lives in Austin, grew up friends with Patrick, and as the McMahons had already been considering opening a bookstore, the conversation about the future of Dr. Marx's books arose naturally. Patrick and Sukyi wound up purchasing the Marx Collection's more than 100,000 books – 10 times the number they expected to open their store with. "It would've taken us years to amass even the 10,000," says Sukyi. "We had this immediate street clout." She adds that the Marx family, who held on to 30,000 or so of the professor's most beloved pieces, is extremely supportive of their store and thinks that Dr. Marx would be thrilled.

Marx collected from the 1960s until the day he died, storing the books in catalog bags in two basements, a giant outdoor shed, and a narrow spiral staircase that led to rows and rows of handmade cabinets, tightly packed with books. When asked if Marx, a "really quirky guy," left the books organized, the McMahons laugh. "No, but he was an old geek, so he programmed a database. He couldn't tell you where a book was, but he could tell you which books he owned with his own sort of Dewey decimal system," says Patrick. Once a teacher, always: Marx also kept journals logging the thousands of books he'd read, each assigned a grade from A to F. With so many first and early editions, Patrick and Sukyi carefully researched the history and market value of each book, sometimes finding a scratch note with rogue chemistry formulas and gaining a lifetime's education in otherworldly stories. "We love sci-fi and thought we knew enough about sci-fi to open a bookstore, but now we feel like we know nothing," Sukyi jokes. "I have a B.A. and M.A. in literature and did my thesis on Aldous Hux­ley. Means nothing. Patrick and I have been reading sci-fi our whole lives, but when you buy that many books, you realize you've read just the smallest amount of books."

Patrick (l) and Sukyi McMahon of 5th Dimension Books' Wandering Bookmobile

"The paperback collection really is the treasure," says Patrick. Their oldest book, There Is No Devil, by Maurus Jokai, is the first English translation of Hungarian science fiction, complete with a hand drawing of the author, and dates back to 1899. That they kept in their personal collection. "That's kind of the great thing about having 100,000 books: We said we'll keep 1 percent, and that's still 1,000 books, but it'll probably end up being more," admits Patrick. That still leaves tens of thousands of choices for the rest of us. The McMahons beam, recounting tidbits from their research. From the Forties magazines to Isaac Asimov's series of short stories to the origins of mass-produced sci-fi as wartime paperbacks for soldiers' pockets to the wild story of Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 expurgation, every tale is riveting.

They have Sukyi's favorites – Margaret Atwood, Octavia Butler, Ursula K. Le Guin – and Patrick's obscure short stories, plus Harlan Ellison and H.P. Lovecraft. They have cyberpunk and nanopunk, soft and hard sci-fi, military and alternate history, space operas. Marx had tons of foreign works, too: Cold War-era Russian, Chinese, French, etc. Sukyi was particularly fascinated by the "mind-blowing and twisted" Japanese science fiction. She adds, "We also sell a lot of cat sci-fi." Patrick goes on, grinning: "He had a bunch of weird stuff like Catfantastic," which is basically an anthology of short stories starring cats. "People love those books! We can't keep them on the shelves. When it comes to animals and Austin, well, they just fly off the shelves."

Even if fringe, fantasy, or science fiction have never been your thing, Sukyi and Patrick insist that 5DB has something for you. Their active social media profiles and programs like kids' storytime at In.gredients are part of their community outreach efforts. With Austin's plethora of weird, geeky, tech-centric activities and flocks of attendees for game and comic conventions, it's a perfect match. Just last year, Austin City Council made mobile retail possible, and 5DB led the pack in picking up the permit. "We're literally the first of our kind, which also means we have to tread carefully. We're very careful to be good neighbors," says Sukyi. "We really want people to feel like we're a staple part of the community. We're not just hawking books."

So next time you visit Asti or Quack's, step inside 5DB, a trippy little spot on the space-time continuum, bringing the past so close to the future.

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Austin Public Library, Austin History Center, science fiction, 5th Dimension Books, Patrick McMahon, Sukyi McMahon, John N. Marx, bookmobiles, "Neighborhood Bound", Unbound: Sin Fronteras, Betsy Evans, Andrew Murphy, Conor Walker, mobile libraries

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