Collector Nick Ervin with an 1877 volume of Clarence King’s classic series Geological Exploration of the Fortieth Parallel
Nick Ervin treasures the many dozens of rare books on North American overland expeditions that reside on shelves throughout his home. They speak to his twin passions of bibliophilia (he began browsing library sales as a child on vacation in New England) and conservation (he was a principal local organizer of the California Desert Protection Act of 1994). But Ervin doesn’t feel pride of ownership in his holdings as such. He sees book collecting as an act of stewardship, and he likes to imagine how future caretakers of his books will one day, as he does now, relive epic continental history through the majestic words and images on these luminous pages.
Q: What is the primary focus of your collection?
A: I started with books under the topic of Western Americana, but in recent years I have broadened my scope to include overland travel and exploration accounts covering all of the United States, as well as Canada, from 1750 to 1890. My wife happens to be Canadian, and I feel some affinity for our great northern neighbor; plus, some of the most exciting early explorations were in Canada. I aim for coherence, and I acquire selectively – I’ll sometimes wait months before I buy a significant book. Accumulating too many books too fast seems intellectually messy to me. It dilutes the pleasure of collecting; it’s like eating too much chocolate at one time.
Q: Which are your most prized acquisitions?
A: That’s like asking me which of my children is my favorite. I often choose books because their illustrations make them noteworthy, like John Macomb’s Exploring Expedition report on his 1859 excursion from New Mexico to Colorado, which includes stunning lithographs and folding maps. Like most collectors, I look for first and early editions. I have a second English language edition in two volumes of Swedish botanist Peter Kalm’s Travels in North America published in 1772 and also the 1759 first English edition in two volumes of The History of California by Venegas.
Q: How did you learn the fundamentals of book collecting?
A: I’ve assembled a modest collection of books about book collecting from the mid-19th century through today. I’ve read every one of them, and that’s how I educated myself. One of my favorites is a reprint of Richard du Bury’s Philobiblon, a classic work originally in Latin from the early 14th century about the love of books and the importance of libraries. I’ve learned a lot from Lynda Claassen and the staff of the Mandeville Special Collections, and they have invited me to meet other book collectors. Ours is too often a solitary activity, like long-distance running, and it’s less lonely if you can find other people of similar mind. Other major cities have book collecting clubs and societies. I wish San Diego had one currently.
Q: You’ve said that you think about the future bibliophiles who will acquire and love your books. What about the people who had them long before you did?
Collector Nick Ervin with George Wheeler’s 1889 United States Geographical Surveys West of 100th Meridian, Vol. 1
A: Many of my books have old inscriptions and bookplates, and I’m fascinated by that. One I have was owned by someone in an old English family with a coat of arms. Another contains a love note from a man to his wife on the flyleaf. My copy of Commerce of the Prairies has a bookplate with the initials “WAH.” Through online research, I discovered that the man was a prominent lawyer in small town Ohio in the early 1840s, a time when Ohio was on the frontier and represented the future.
Q: Do you inscribe your books for future owners?
A: Never. My books are my friends, and I wouldn’t mar them.