The library of Kevin
One man's quest to archive North Dakota's literary landscape in his house
Kevin Carvell confronts the stacks of used books languishing in the musty frugality of a thrift store with a mixture of mild expectation and weariness. He reminds himself that gems have a tendency to turn up in the most unlikely places, including the volume he found tucked into a shelf of ornamental books meant to dignify the sales floor of a waterbed store, and more than a few have come from garage sales. Long years of prospecting the tattered stocks of books in secondhand stores have yielded some of his best finds, but he knows when walking in, that most of the time he will leave empty-handed. Carvell's three decades of ardently stalking bookstores scattered around the country have made it harder to find titles he doesn't already own, sometimes in duplicate. To warrant his interest, a book must pass one of two tests: It must be about North Dakota, in a way he regards as more than superficial, or it must have been written by a North Dakota author.
Crouched down in the dim light of the thrift shop, Carvell brightens when he spots a paperback poetry book, "Treasures, Pleasures and Measures of Inspirational Verse," by an unfamiliar author. "I don't know if it's worthy," he says while turning to the copyright page, where he learns that the self-published book was issued by Mr. Print in Fargo, thus qualifying for admission to his collection. His momentary satisfaction fades when he spots trouble standing in front of a nearby stack: David Martinson, actually an old friend, but here a threat. Martinson, a poet and English lecturer at NDSU, is also an accomplished book collector -- and therefore a rival for any hidden jewels. "So you've already covered all of this," Carvell says with mock defeat in his voice. "So this is all trash."
Martinson chuckles. Their friendship is further colored by the fact that Martinson owns Great Northern Books, a rare used bookstore in downtown Fargo, and has supplied Carvell with hundreds of hard-to-find titles. "I'm not getting any North Dakota stuff today," Martinson says. After giving that reassurance, the book dealer compliments Carvell's bona fides as a collector. "Kevin has the finest collection of books of this region anywhere," he says. "One of the things I admire about Kevin's collection is its inclusiveness. It's just a fabulous collection, and it's meticulously cared for." Carvell's penchant for inclusiveness displays itself a few minutes later, when he grabs two slender volumes, a pair of annuals from Fargo's Ben Franklin Junior High, for 1987 and 1989. "I've got two treasures," he says, paying $3 for his three finds. "That's enough for here."
"Carvell can trace the beginnings of his obsession back to those stolen moments years ago in Sister Helen Margaret's classroom, back when he was a curious seventh grader eavesdropping on the teacher's lectures about North Dakota history, lessons that were intended for the eighth graders, whose classroom at St. Vincent's School in Mott, N.D., he shared. He was excited to learn that important explorers, men like Lewis and Clark, had passed through the area. At home, his mother told him bedtime stories about growing up on a farm near town. Her father was one of seven Czech immigrant brothers who settled adjoining homesteads. The brothers had helped dig the New York City subway and farmed in Iowa and Minnesota before trying their luck in the thin soil of Hettinger County. In his adolescent years he began his own study of local history, reading whatever he could find in local libraries, and found the accounts surprisingly rich. He was intrigued by the nearby Battle of Killdeer Mountain, a major conflict between the U.S. Cavalry and Sioux bands that fled into Dakota Territory following an 1862 uprising in Minnesota. According to legend, Sioux warriors who were completely surrounded escaped down the Medicine Hole, an opening in the earth near the top of a commanding hillside. More likely, he admits now, the warriors simply snuck off under cover of darkness. But stories like those prompted Carvell to see his humble hometown and surrounding countryside from a fresh angle. "The fact that you live in a place where something interesting happened appealed to me," he says. "It puts a whole new light on the place where you live and gives you a whole new appreciation."
One book in particular from his boyhood made a lasting impression, and lingers as a sentimental favorite, "Extraordinary North Dakotans." One of the most oddly extraordinary North Dakotans was Hans Langseth, a prolifically whiskered Norwegian immigrant who farmed near Barney, N.D., and whose 18-foot beard made it into the Smithsonian Institution. Carvell, who keeps his own beard carefully trimmed in counterpoint to his balding head, has a picture of Langseth displaying his regal whiskers, clipped decades ago from a newspaper. He keeps the photo inside the back cover of his own copy of the book, whose exotic profile subjects reinforced his realization that history was a trip worth taking. He wanted more
"That book was the inspiration, I guess," Carvell says, but adds that it was one of a series of early influences, that there was no single seed. He sounds more than a little mystified by all that has sprouted from his boyhood fascination, which ultimately led him to amass a collection of more than 7,000 books, periodicals, maps, county histories, school annuals, autographed monographs -- seemingly anything ever written about North Dakota or by an author with legitimate ties to the state. Carvell's definition of a North Dakota author, it's worth noting, skews toward leniency: anyone who stayed long enough to get mail. Will Weaver, the well-known Minnesota novelist and short story writer, nonetheless qualifies as a North Dakota writer by Carvell's criteria, since he attended classes and collected mail at the University of North Dakota. Given such generous standards, and the vast reach of his ambitions, the collection has overtaken his home in a leafy neighborhood in south Fargo. Over time, bookshelves spread like kudzu along his walls, starting in his living room, where shelves flank his fireplace and dominate the main wall, the site of his nonfiction collection and where he manages to display a few keepsakes from his father's drugstore, including a large mortar and pestle as well as utensils from the soda fountain. Shelving resumes in his grown daughter's bedroom, where most of his North Dakota poetry and fiction collection now resides, and continues down the hall, where row after row of books engulf a room that doubles as his office and guestroom, finally culminating downstairs in his basement. He jokes that he has to be careful, recalling news reports of a bibliophile who was crushed to death by falling books. "My collection's enormous," Carvell says without sounding boastful. "It's larger than many institutional collections."
The inspiration to build such an extensive collection struck Carvell after he bought a rare, three-volume history of his native state while browsing at a secondhand store. He got home and looked at his bookshelf, where he had 30 or 40 titles about North Dakota or written by its sons or daughters, and decided it would be fun and maybe even worthwhile to keep going. That motivating spark came to him more than 25 years ago, not long after his divorce, when he found himself with more free time and without a spouse to question how he handled his discretionary spending. Soon he began haunting thrift stores, antique shops and, of course, used bookstores. A sure sign of his mania came when he realized he'd become a regular at the state historical society's yearly spring book sales, whose gaggle of book-hungry history buffs he jokingly compares to the throngs of shoppers who mob Wal-Mart on the morning after Thanksgiving. Interestingly, most of Carvell's fellow North Dakota book collectors are male. "This book-collecting thing," he says, "is a guy thing."
"Carvell has succeeded in most of the tasks he's assigned himself in life, as his densely populated bookshelves attest, but he is a failed pharmacist. After graduating from high school he marched right off to NDSU with plans to study pharmacy, following a family career path blazed by his paternal grandfather and taken before him by his father and uncles. Elective courses allowed him to indulge his interest in North Dakota history, some of it brought to life by his professor, kindly old Rudolf Otterson, himself a walking history book, able to spice his lectures with asides drawn from his own experiences, which reached back before World War I, when North Dakota was still a young state. The professor told about the time in the 1930s that he walked from campus to the railroad bridge spanning the Red River to see long lines of railroad cars -- grain shipments halted by Gov. Bill Langer in a vain effort to boost the price of wheat. Those lectures motivated Carvell to go on collegiate historical research expeditions, burrowing into state historical archives for a project on the Dakota Indian wars. But Carvell encountered one small problem in college: He hated chemistry. This left him with an unexpected dilemma about what to make his life's work, and he did something that now seems uncharacteristically rash. After two years of indifferent study he went back home to the Hettinger County draft board and volunteered to be drafted. The board was surprised; this was an unusual move in 1965, when U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War was escalating. Carvell entered the Army as a draftee, a status that enabled a shorter tour of duty, which he served in Germany as a clerk to a two-star general, and rewrote a guidebook for soldiers in Europe.
After his Army tour ended, Carvell returned to NDSU and civilian life, this time with an interest in journalism, which appealed to him because of the ferment of the times. He was invited to become a staff writer at the Spectrum after the editors saw his contributions to a local newspaper supplement. Soon he was covering the storms sweeping society, including antiwar and civil rights protests, American Indian activism, the ecological movement and the sexual revolution. In the spring of 1969, the year of Woodstock and the first Apollo moon landing, Carvell and his fellow Spectrum staff members decided to have a staff picnic. Then, on a lark, the editors invited the general pubic to the gathering in Zap, N.D. The outing became a hot topic of conversation around campus, so Carvell wrote a front-page article about what by then had become known as the "Zip to Zap." His story was picked up by The Associated Press news wire, and appeared in papers around the country. Hordes of young people estimated to number 3,000 converged on tiny Zap, a sleepy coal-mining town of 300, and eventually spilled over into surrounding communities. The crowd became a rowdy mob after drinking the local bar dry, prompting the governor to call out the National Guard to restore order. The Zip to Zap ended up making national news, to Carvell's lasting chagrin, and became a quirky footnote in the annals of North Dakota celebrations.
After graduating in 1971, Carvell joined the reporting staff of The Forum, drawing an assignment at city hall, where one day he was surprised to find himself the subject of a news conference called by the mayor, who wanted to complain about Carvell's coverage of a controversial neighborhood renewal project. One moment Carvell was taking notes, the next moment he was trying to act composed when the television cameras focused on him for reaction as the mayor offered a ranting journalism critique. At first Carvell was a bit ruffled, but then he was bemused to be the subject of a news story. Carvell's eyes often twinkle with mirth. He has an ironic sense of humor, often directed at himself. He recently discovered, to his dismay, that a former police officer in Mott who once arrested Carvell for driving one mile over the speed limit is buried next to a plot he bought in the local cemetery, making it an uninviting place to spend eternity. He quips that he has cheap ground to sell
After city hall Carvell ascended to the state political beat, where he had opportunities to deepen his knowledge of North Dakota and to indulge his interest in history, occasionally roaming between trips to the state capitol and political conventions, including the time he drove old U.S. Highway 10 from Minnesota to Montana, with reflective stops in out-of-the way spots, including the tin-can tower near Casselton and the rock fountain at Crystal Springs, both unseen by motorists whizzing by on Interstate 94.
Following a decade of meeting newspaper deadlines, Carvell's journalism career ended when he accepted an offer to head the Fargo field office for Byron Dorgan, who had grown up a few years ahead of Carvell a few miles down the road from Mott in Regent. Dorgan had just been elected North Dakota's lone congressman, and later would become its junior U.S. senator. Carvell drew from his extensive knowledge of North Dakota when Dorgan called on him for historical references to insert into remarks during the senator's appearances around the state. The job made large demands of Carvell's time, and he kept a pillow and blanket in his office so his daughter could nap while joining him at the office on weekends. The years of long hours took their toll on Carvell's health, and he retired three years ago after developing heart problems, allowing him more time to pursue books.
Unfortunately, his heart condition left him with less energy, forcing him to set aside what was to be his Magnus opus: the definitive bibliography of North Dakota books and authors, spiced with biographical sketches and other tidbits. The unfinished bibliography languishes in the orderly drawers of index cards on his desk, and on the memory inside his computer, but falls far short of completion -- or of keeping up with his growing collection. When Carvell abandoned the project several years ago, he had index cards cataloging 4,570 items in his collection, purchased at a cost of $22,781. His collection has almost doubled since then, but his acquisitions no longer come with index-card notations.
Carvell, now 61, has no idea of the monetary worth of his collection. First editions or signed copies, although welcome, aren't that important. Content counts most, especially when he has a personal connection to the book. That explains why one of his favorite volumes is also one of his most obscure, "Dakota Days" by Edson C. Dayton, the privately printed memoir of a Hettinger County rancher from 1886 to 1898. "This was the first thing written about my home stomping grounds," Carvell says. He bought his copy from a Texas bookseller for $400, but finds a passage about the tormenting winter of 1897 priceless for what it reveals about the hardships of early ranch life in the area where his family settled, a period that is sparsely documented. All of Dayton's 12,000 sheep were exposed to scabies, an infectious skin disease caused by mites, and had to be double-dipped in a leaky handmade tank, an unwieldy task accomplished with help from a large crew of Hungarian immigrants, the most ready form of surplus labor rounded up from surrounding communities. Besides the intrinsic rewards of having so many rich historical accounts at his fingertips, Carvell derives other satisfactions from his collection, including acknowledgment of his efforts from appreciative authors. He has a signed first edition of Lois Phillips Hudson's 1964 collection of short stories, "Reapers of the Dust," drawn from her experiences growing up on a farm near Cleveland, N.D., during the Great Depression. "To Kevin Carvell," the author wrote in her inscription, "who managed to do what I haven't managed to do -- find a copy of this book."
"After combing the thrift shop and leaving with his unexpected finds, Carvell resumes the hunt a few blocks away, at B.D.S. Books, Fargo-Moorhead's largest used bookstore, located across from Martinson's downtown shop. Now Carvell holds two index cards, a list of novels by North Dakota authors that he owns - his way of avoiding unwanted duplication. "All fiction this time," he says. "Makes it easier." When starting out, Carvell didn't know which authors or titles to look for. He simply skimmed book spines for promising words. "A long line of prairie this and prairie that," he says. He is working his way methodically down the aisle, dragging a stepladder behind him so he can scan the top rows, out of reach for his five-foot, eight-inch tall frame. "I'm not doing very well here," he says. His eyes travel to the end of a row, but find only disappointment expressed by a single word, "Nope." His luck improves at the next stack, where he smiles as he retrieves a copy of Keith Wheeler's "Peaceable Lane." The novel, topical when it appeared 45 years ago, examined social and racial tension in the affluent suburbs of New York City, a headline-echoing quality some critics faulted. But Carvell grabs it without hesitation, even though he already owns it. This copy, though, is in good condition, with a dust jacket, a bargain at $4. Wheeler, Carvell explains, was North Dakota born and raised. He later became an associate editor of Life magazine, and has at least four published novels to his credit. The author's father managed a grain elevator in Carrington, where both parents are buried.
Brad Stephenson, proprietor of B.D.S. Books, has placed himself at Carvell's disposal, somewhat in the manner of a solicitous casino manager making sure a high roller is properly attended to at the roulette table. "Brad, where's your science fiction section?" Carvell asks. He wants anything Stephenson might have by the late Clifford Simak, a well-known science fiction writer who, many years ago, worked a stint as a newspaper reporter in Fargo. This information amuses Stephenson, himself a science fiction fan. The bookseller is in awe of Carvell's esoteric knowledge of North Dakota authors. "This is why I keep bugging this guy to finish his list," the bookseller says, referring to the annotated bibliography project Carvell had to put aside. "Because he's finding these North Dakota connections that most of us don't know."
When finished 20 minutes later, after finding a handful of Kathleen Eagle romance novels and several popular westerns by North Dakota authors, Carvell heads for his rendezvous with the cash register. "Boy, I was surprised at how many Kathleen Eagles there are," he says, adding that she'd once taught school in Fort Yates. "It's going to cost a fortune. Won't be able to go to the Czech Republic." Carvell is eagerly anticipating a trip this spring with his daughter and a sister to a tiny Czech village, the name of which he struggles to pronounce correctly, where they will try to locate relatives on his mother's side. The trip is an offshoot of Carvell's recently completed family history, which commemorates the arrival 100 years ago of his Czech-immigrant ancestors in North Dakota. Stephenson rings up his sale, counting 24 books, and gently ribs his customer about whether he actually reads everything he buys. "Well," Carvell replies, "I eventually get around to reading most of the nonfiction." Then he totes his purchases home, pleased that eight came free, thanks to a sales promotion, adding the latest items to what might be the largest private library of books about North Dakota. But Carvell is not one to allow his purchasing department long periods of idleness. A few days later, en route to Mott, he stops to browse at Huntington's, a used bookstore he frequents in downtown Mandan. There he apprehends two more wayward Ben Franklin annuals, from 1977 and 1982, taking two more pieces of North Dakota to make his own.