Editor's Note: This story was originally published in Digital Issue V.
It’s the end of a busy day. Sukyi McMahon and her husband Patrick McMahon sweep the floor, shelve the books, lock the doors. Then they get in the driver’s seat to start the ignition.
Story by Nancy Huang
Photos by Kristin Evans
This is how vintage bookmobile Fifth Dimension Books operates. Co-owners and spouses Sukyi and Patrick McMahon had the idea for the bookmobile in 2012. Their dream became a reality two years later. “Patrick and I have always wanted to own a bookstore together,” Sukyi McMahon says. “We’re often told that we’re very bold and adventurous.”
The white-with-red-lettering bookmobile parks on 25th and Guadalupe streets on Wednesday to Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. The McMahons say they have been assembling their inventory for the past three years. “We happened upon Dr. [John] Marx’s collection, which was largely many more books than we needed, but in the same sci-fi area that we wanted to sell in, and so everything just kind of fell into place,” Patrick McMahon says.
John Marx, Ph.D, was a chemistry professor at Texas Tech University for 37 years, where he was known for his book collecting. “He had amassed a collection of sci-fi, fantasy and other types of fringe books for his lifetime,” Sukyi McMahon says. “When he passed away in 2012, it just kind of happened that we asked his son what was happening with his estate. It was at that point that we started talking seriously to his family about purchasing the 100,000 plus books that Dr. Marx had been assembling his whole life.”
Sam Marx, son of the late John Marx and Patrick McMahon’s high school classmate, says that he couldn’t be happier that the collection went to the McMahons. “They’re really good friends of mine,” Sam Marx says. “[It’s incredible] how much [Patrick] and Sukyi love books, and how much Sukyi loves stories, how much they love the entire thing. Pat and I have been talking science fiction books since high school. He used to come over to my house and just wander around the basement in awe of the books.”
The collection itself, comprised of over 103,000 total catalogued items, was a lifelong process to collect, archive and datamine. The collection includes a 1963 pre-censored copy of “Fahrenheit 451,” signed books from Nebula and Hugo-award winning authors, and a rare hardcover Star Wars novel that preceded the first movie. “My dad started collecting in 1952,” Sam Marx says. “He just constantly collected. He kept the dust jackets of all his favorite books. He just really, really loved science fiction, he loved the stories, the characters. And more than that he loved sharing that with people, connecting with people over that.”
Now the collection rotates on Fifth Dimension’s shelves every month and is made up of a diverse array of reading material. “The bulk of it science fiction and fantasy, but there was some mystery tossed in there, some westerns,” Sam Marx says. “[Dad] got as many first editions as he could get, the best quality he could get.”
Stepping into Fifth Dimension Books is a surreal experience. Once inside, it’s hard to tell you’re in a vehicle. Books line every inch of the wall, just like any other bookstore. There are reading benches placed in front of the shelves, and plenty of natural light comes in from the windows. “The bookmobile has a long history as well, it was in the library system for 25 years before we got it,” Sukyi McMahon says. “We really kind of do honor that history as well. We think it’s important because not only are people nostalgic about books, they’re nostalgic about the way that we get them out there.”
The McMahons have spent the last three years bringing each of John Marx’s books down from Lubbock to Austin. “We have been systematically bringing down all these tens of thousands of books all the way from Lubbock to Austin over the past three years,” Patrick McMahon says. “It’s an amazing collection, and when people come into the bookstore and ask, ‘Where did you get these books?’ we always answer, ‘Well, you’re looking at a very tiny, select part of a huge, vast collection.’”
Patrick McMahon says that the customers are appreciative of the bookmobile’s history. “I think they can really respect that they’re taking something that was someone’s treasure,” he says. “I think they kind of feel that love of books as well.”
The vast collection not only offers readers plenty of variety, but also limited-edition merchandise. “A good portion of the books that we sell are not in print anymore,” Patrick McMahon says. “They can’t find these books on an e-reader.”
The couple doesn't hire any employees, but they do get help from Kitty McMahon, Patrick’s mother. “Behind the scenes she is the unsung hero of [Fifth Dimension] Books,” Sukyi McMahon says. “She spends almost every day sorting books and getting them ready because we switch out our stock once a month, so she is busy preparing every round of books every month. She’s not even paid, she’s just an amazing volunteer.”
Patrick McMahon says his favorite part of working at Fifth Dimension is talking to people about books. “There’s a wide variety of people who read books, and because we were in such close proximity to the customers, conversation is rather inevitable most of the time,” Patrick McMahon says. “We’re literally ten feet from you, at all times.”
Sukyi McMahon says Fifth Dimension Books, like John Marx’s collection, has been a lifelong ambition. “We’ve been learning a lot, these past few years. Not just selling, but just about books in general, but the quality of books, and just so much about it,” Sukyi McMahon says. “We’re a family-owned local business and it’s not just something that we decided to do one day, it’s been our shared, lifelong dream.”
Fifth Dimension Books parks at Guadalupe and 25th streets from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Hyde Park from 4:30 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday.