How To Sell 100,000 Sci-Fi Books

Inside Austin’s beloved bookmobile, Fifth Dimension Books

Fifth Dimension Books, the Austin-based sci-fi bookmobile, is proof that the modern bookscape is a vibrant, diverse ecosystem.

Four years ago, the owners of Fifth Dimension Books, Sukyi and Patrick McMahon, purchased a collection of 100,000 science fiction books from the estate of family friend, Dr. John N. Marx. They bought a 1987 library-system bookmobile from Craigslist, spent months putting the books in storage, and bringing it up to snuff. In 2013, they opened their mobile bookstore in Austin’s hipster Hyde Park neighborhood.

They bought a 1987 library-system bookmobile from Craigslist, spent months putting the books in storage, and bringing it up to snuff.

“We knew that we couldn’t compete with something like Amazon,” Ms. McMahon said. “And we knew we didn’t want to. But we also knew that we had to translate being ‘science fiction aficionados’ into ‘successful business owners’ if we wanted Fifth Dimension Books to work. So we have to be creative and we’re always looking for new ideas to try out.”

Their niche? Expertise. They knew their sci-fi and they love to talk about it. They also know how to connect readers with the genre. From neophytes (“I’m not sure science fiction is really my thing — all those robots”), to connoisseur collectors (“You have signed copies of rare books?!?”), to niche fans (“I’m looking for something in early diesel punk”), Ms. McMahon believes that there is a science fiction book for everyone. Fifth Dimension’s motto is Used & Collectable Books For All Ages; Sci-Fi, Fantasy, & Other Fringe Books. And they have those books by the shelf-ful.

Every month, Ms. McMahon stocks the shelves with new and different books, curating special shelves featuring less-read authors and various subgenres. She offers children’s puppeetering and a free, outdoor, award-winning story hour near in.gredients neighborhood grocer. The story hour is so popular that dozens of kids and their parents find their way to the Fifth Dimension’s child-sized bookshelves and to meet Octavia the puppet — named in honor of Octavia Butler. If you email Ms. McMahon, she’ll compile a personal “must read” sci-fi list for you.

“Sukyi and her weird wandering book mobile were a wonderful addition to our grounds every Monday morning for nearly a year,” said Josh Blaine, owner of local grocer in.gredients. “She attracted families from all over Austin with her free children’s story time, which included puppets, songs, and dance. It’s a beautiful sight: 20–30 parents and kids gathered on our lawn every Monday morning enjoying old-fashioned entertainment offered by a passionate and caring member of our community.”

The very, very young bookmobile patrons love lying on the floor, utterly absorbed in shelf of sci-fi for kids.

On its surface, Fifth Dimension Books appeals to the nostalgia of the thirty-plus and older crowds — readers that can remember bookmobiles from their childhoods. Younger book-goers love its “shop local” vibe. The very, very young bookmobile patrons love lying on the floor, utterly absorbed in shelf of sci-fi for kids. The store touts itself as a “mighty, yet miniature mobile mover of literature.”

The physical machine of Fifth Dimension Books is a Chevy P30 bookmobile — it’s over twenty feet long, gets 6 miles per gallon, and has a top cruising speed of something like 54 miles per hour. It drives like a refrigerator on wheels.

“I try not to stress it out, driving on the highway,” Ms. McMahon laughed. “Honestly, it was a bit terrifying to try and park this thing, before I installed the rear-mounted camera. Now if feels natural.”

Originally from New Jersey, the bookmobile was active for twenty-five years in the public library system before the McMahons purchased it. After the bookmobile checked out with a mechanic’s inspection, they had it shipped to Austin from the East Coast.

Once they had the bookmobile in Austin, they started thinking about how to move the books from Lubbock (where they were located) to Austin. The limiting factor in moving was how much weight a single truck could carry at a time. It took eight trips between Lubbock and Austin using the largest truck Penske had at about four hundred boxes per trip to move the entire collection.

It took eight trips between Lubbock and Austin using the largest truck Penske had at about four hundred boxes per trip to move the entire collection.

Fifth Dimension Books also had to figure out how to operate, legally, in the city. “Austin at the time did not offer a permit for mobile retail businesses. The ordinance we needed was currently under discussion by the city legislature so it was a matter of sitting through those meetings and stating our support,” Patrick McMahon said. “After the ordinance was unanimously passed we were the first mobile business in Austin to receive a permit of its type.”

But it’s the books and the bookshelves of Fifth Dimension Books that command curiosity, attention, and interest as soon as you step into the mobile bookstore.

The books on the shelves of Fifth Dimension and its inventory in storage are the lifetime collection of Dr. John N. Marx, a longtime professor of chemistry at Texas Tech University. When Dr. Marx passed away in 2012, the McMahons purchased the 100,000+ collection from the Marx family — a collection so well-known in the science fiction community that Dr. Marx’s passing was noted at the 2012 World Science Fiction Association’s Hugo Awards. (Dr. Marx ran his niche online bookstore, from 1998–2012.)

His collection, though, was more than just its numbers and sheer volume; the compendium represented a lifetime of collecting, cataloging, and curating. With Dr. Marx’s passing, the collection metamorphosed in its life cycle. “We feel that we are stewards of the collection and take that responsibility seriously,” Ms. McMahon said, referring to the legacy of the books.

A portrait of Dr. Marx, and a brief biography of him, hang above the bookmobile’s dashboard. It feels like Dr. Marx is offering a final benediction on his collection as customers pass by his picture, clutching a new-to-them book, eager to read. This new reader is a new chapter in the book’s own life history.

“Don’t the books fall off the shelves when you drive?” the customers of Fifth Dimension Books invariably ask the McMahons.

Thanks to the bookmobile’s design, the answer is no. The shelves line both sides of the vehicle, with five or six shelves per unit. They’re built to tip backwards just slightly, insuring that the book snug in their shelves. While the shelves travel from location to location as part of the bookmobile’s architecture, the books on the shelves move only through the circulation of inventory.

But books and their shelves move in curious and unexpected ways. Space in the store is at an utter premium — books, buttons, and T-shirts are tucked away in every nook and cranny — but the bookmobile means that the bookshelf comes to the reader, rather than the reader coming to it.

The bookmobile means that the bookshelf comes to the reader, rather than the reader coming to it.

There’s a kinesis about the books on those mobile shelves of Fifth Dimension Books, as the shelf inventory is restocked every month. Because the bookshelves are so small and the number of books so different — relative to what one might find in a traditional brick-and-mortar store — Ms. McMahon changes out the books on the shelves with regularity.

She also spruces up the shelves to help readers create their book encounters. Some books face out, some books are shelved spine to spine. To celebrate Black History Month, for example, Ms. McMahon curated a shelf of under-read African-American science fiction writers. Her “Blind Date With A Book” shelf features books wrapped in brown paper with snippets from the book’s covered penned on the wrapping and readers buy the books, title unknown. Thanks to the Blind Date With A Book, I read Serpent Catch by Dave Wolverton — a Neanderthal sci-fi that I probably wouldn’t have picked up on my own, but enjoyed reading it.

It is the constant — yet thoughtful — churn of books on their shelves is what really underlies the success of Fifth Dimension Books.

As book commerce becomes decreasingly non-local and impersonal, the McMahons and the Fifth Dimension bookmobile’s business builds a niche through its connections within the Austin community and the creativity of its owners.

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