William Gowans’ Love of Books
Instilled by Edgar Allen Poe
William Gowans, bibliophile and publisher, was born March
29, 1803 in Lanarkshire. He was a product of vigorous
Scotch peasantry and lived on a farm near the Falls of the
Clyde, where he attended school. His family emigrated to the
United States in 1823. A short residence in Philadelphia was
followed by some five years in Crawford County Indiana.
When William Gowans was about 25 years old, he went to
New York City and tried his hand at various occupations,
including gardening, news vending and stone cutting. In
1830 he played a minor part with Edwin Forrest at the
Later he set up a bookstall on Chatham Street, consisting
simply of a row of shelves, protected with wooden shutters, an
iron bar, and a padlock. He also recounted that he was a
boarder for several months about 1837 in the household of
Edgar Allen Poe, according to “New York Evening Mail,”
December 10, 1870. For the rest of his life he was ever
identified with books. He was not as much concerned with
books with uncut pages and luxurious bindings as he was with
second-hand and rare volumes, and “unconsidered tribles and
His locations were many, and for a brief period he sat up shop
as a book auctioneer. From 1863 to the end of his life, he was
the “Antiquarian of Nassau Street” with his shop at No. 115
on that thoroughfare. He was more a book collector than a
book salesman. When a customer complained that a book was
“too high,” he would reply, “Well, we’ll make it higher,” at the
same time placing it on a tall shelf out of reach.
His books filled the store, floor, basement and sub-cellar, the
treasures in the depths discovered only with the aid of a small
tin sperm-oil lamp.
“Books lay everywhere in seemingly dire confusion, piled
upon tables and on the floor, until they finally toppled over,
and the few narrow aisles which had originally been left
between the rows became well-nigh impassable,” according to
the “The New York Post.” His executors sold at auction
some 250,000 bound volumes after eight tons of pamphlets
had been sold as waste paper.
William Gowans did some publishing from time to time, his
earliest production being a reprint of the English edition in
1701 of Dacier’s translation of “Plato’s Phacedo” in 1833.
Between 1842 and 1870, he issued 28 catalogues of his books.
These catalogues are full of “his antiquarian reminiscences,
his quaint and shrewd opinions, and curious speculations.”
Other worthwhile publications were the historical reprints
known as “Gowans’ Bibliotheca Americana” [5 volumes,
1845-1860.] Additional self-revelation is included in a sketch
he wrote of a fellow bibliophile, “Reminiscences of Hon.
Gabriel Furman,” “Notes, Geographical and Historical,
Relating to the Town of Brooklyn on Long Island,” 1865.
He was married in middle age to Susan Bradley of New York
who died in 1866, leaving no children to William Gowans and
Susan Bradley Gowans. William Gowans died November 27,
1870 in New York City, according to Scribner’s “Dictionary
of American Biography,” Volume VII, page 459.
Additional information on the life of William Gowans is contained
in W. L. Andrews’ “The Old Booksellers of New
York and Other Papers,” , obituaries in “New York
Evening Mail,” December 1, 1870, “New York Evening
Post,” November 29, 1870, “Nation,” December 1, 1870 and
“Catalogue of the Books Belonging to the Estate of the late
William Gowans” . His portrait appears in Gowans’
Gowen Research Foundation gratefully acknowledges a Memorial Dedicated to the memory of Frank Maxwell Gowan who devoted many years to the preservation of the Gowan Family Heritage as a gift of his Granddaughter Shari L. Southard of Glendale, Arizona