‘To survive, you have to set yourself apart’—MW Books, Galway

Reading Room at MW Books

Carina McNally

Speaking to me from his Galway base, Jim Shaughnessy, owner of MW Books, describes his surroundings. In a former truck repair centre with over a quarter of a million books stored in its 15000 sq. feet, his account of their newly furbished reading room conjures up eye-watering displays; walls lined with 19th century mahogany bookcases, packed with handcrafted leather bound books, many in their original 17th century binding. The room will welcome international book buyers—once travel is an option again—somewhere they can peruse five centuries of printing, illustrated editions, and rare bindings.

With close to three million booksellers on Amazon.com, antique and first edition books specialist Jim explains, in order to survive, you have to set yourself apart. “There’s a competitive online market for out of print books; it’s the breadth, volume and quality of what we sell that makes us different. Every order is handpicked, with an efficient post order service to 70 countries.”

Set up in 2005 from his front room, Jim says at the time it seemed like a good idea, books being all he knew (and states—looking back—didn’t know!). Initially trading on a small basis (Jim’s personal interests include 20th century Irish literature and the short story; he mentions Mary Lavin and Kate O’Brien) the business now employs six people with c. 250,000 volumes in permanent stock.  

“We don’t have huge amounts of Irish material. We stock out of print editions (George Moore and Yeats in the 1880s up to contemporaries Kevin Barry and Colm Tobin) but never established with the subject. People already dealt in Irish literature; we wanted to do something different.”

“Traditionally, we’re an academic library supply, our books ranging from the 16th to the 19thcenturies. We export 99% of our stock, mainly to Europe, North America and increasingly the Far East. We sell to universities and individuals, our private collectors often having an academic background.” 

MW Books have dealt in ‘cradle age’ books printed between 1455- 1500, rare first editions from the original European publishing houses. 

“In those instances it’s not the book’s contents that are important—it’s the fact that it was produced at that period.”

Investment into a dehumidification system was vital to retain older papers. “We currently hold 1500s material, mostly theological. From a book selling / book collecting point of view, there’s a market for 1700s/1800s pamphlets on politics and economics, interesting in a contemporary context.”

MW is far from an exclusive ‘high brow’ book seller.  The majority of volumes, Jim explains, are late 19th early 20th century. A quick perusal of their website shows ‘vintage’ books ranging from manuals on catching fish to castles of Scotland.  “We simply respond to customers’ requests. We’re constantly learning; it’s what keeps us getting up every morning. There’s always something new, a request that’ll lead you to an area of literature that you didn’t have an idea about before.”

Warehouse at MW Books

“Where and what we buy depends on customers. There are plenty of libraries and books available to us, but we’re fussy, paying a premium price for quality material.  We’ve bought over one million books, wholesaling them to bookshops, holding on to unusual copies. We’ve put a lot of time, effort and capital into compiling the collection we have today.”

Jim and his team travel abroad frequently. “There are a few libraries sitting and waiting in London at the moment; presently, with the necessity of isolating on return, we can’t afford the time.” MW Books can’t supply a thousand out of print and antiquarian books on a particular subject immediately.

“We keep in tune with libraries and collections that come to market and buy what becomes available. Being part of a Europe-wide dealer network is vital. If collections become available and a dealer isn’t interested, they pass that information on. It’s a shared data agreement that works well. We also buy from individuals.”

Enquiries usually centre on areas of interest in which a collection lacks material of a certain time, often in humanities and social sciences. Core areas include art history and photography; early material, currently onsite, includes travel and exploration.

“Someone might get in touch looking for 17th/18thcentury material on European economic history, in any number of languages, we then look for it.”  Jim reiterates their luck in having a ready pool of bibliophiles in Galway. Versed in book history and binding types, his employees are all graduates of a publishing programme in nearby NUIG.

Dealing exclusively with an online catalogue, Jim says the lockdown hasn’t affected MW Books greatly.

“Universities usually apply their budgets from January to March; we were busy last year and we hopefully will be again; there were headaches, however, with shipping over the last few weeks.” Jim says he loves people’s reaction when they enter the warehouse.

“As an independent I’m proud. So many book companies are closing.”

MW Books Ltd.

N18 Lydican
Co. Galway
H91 X7E2 Ireland 

Email: mwbooksire@gmail.com

Phone: +353 87 692 7443