All the schooling, Gowans ever had was in the parish school near the Falls of the Clyde.
Life on the farm was distasteful to the boy and his father’s decision to emigrate to the United States in 1821 brought a welcome change. A short residence in Philadelphia was followed by some five years in Crawford County, Indiana.
He and Abraham Lincoln, without knowing each other, must have been flat-boatmen on the Ohio and Mississippi at about the same time. When Gowans was about twenty-five years old he went to New York 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 Old Bowery Theatre. At length, he set up a bookstall on Chatham Street, consisting simply of a row of shelves, protected at night with wooden shutters, an iron bar, and a padlock.
In later years, he testified that the first person to lend him substantial encouragement in his new line of business was James Harper. He also recounted the pleasure that was his as a border for several months in the family of Edgar Allan Poe.
For the rest of his life, he was ever identified with books, not books with pages uncut and luxurious bindings, but secondhand and rare volumes, and “unconsidered trifles and remnants. ”
His locations were many, and for a brief period he set up as a book auctioneer, but from 1863 to the end of his life he was the “Antiquarian of Nassau Street” with his shop at No. 115 on that thoroughfare.
Like Bulwer’s Covent Garden friend, he was a bookseller who preferred to buy rather than sell.
His books filled the store floor, basement, and sub-cellar, the treasures in the depths discoverable 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, like Pelion on Ossa, until they finally toppled over, and the few narrow alleys which had originally been left between the rows became well-nigh impassable”.
His executors sold at auction some 250, 000 bound volumes after eight tons of pamphlets had been sold as waste paper. Gowans did some publishing from time to time, his earliest production being a reprint of the English edition (1701) of Dacier’s translation of Plato’s Phaedo in 1833.
Between 1842 and 1870, he issued twenty-eight catalogs of his books. These catalogs 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. Not without self-revelation is a sketch he wrote of a fellow bibliophile, “Reminiscences of Hon. Gabriel Furman”.
Gowans married, in middle life, Susan Bradley of New York, who died in 1866 leaving no children.