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Man collects thousands of North Dakota books

Quietly nestled in a modest home in the small community of Mott, a treasure trove of more than 10,000 books—all relating to North Dakota—rest in one man’s possession.

By COLE BENZ | Pioneer Editor
cbenz@countrymedia.net

Quietly nestled in a modest home in the small community of Mott, a treasure trove of more than 10,000 books—all relating to North Dakota—rest in one man’s possession.

Mott native Kevin Carvell has spent almost four decades accumulating what has to be one of the most extensive collections of books in the state. A former newspaper editor with the Fargo Forum and longtime director of former Sen. Byron Dorgan’s eastern North Dakota offices, Carvell said his collecting really got serious in 1980, when he had about three dozen books.

“For most people, that would be quite the collection of North Dakota books,” he said.

So how does he decide what publications to put in his collection?

Simple.

If it has a relation to the state of North Dakota, he’ll put in on his shelves.

“First of all, I didn’t think there would be that many,” he said. “I didn’t realize what I was getting myself into, I thought five, 600 books, and I’d be done with it.”

Little did he know, his stack would grow to more than 13,000—he said he lost count when trying to figure out his total recently.

Kevin Carvell has been collecting books since the 1980s. (Pioneer Photo by Cole Benz)

The material in his library either has an author from North Dakota, a fictional story that takes place in North Dakota, or is from a school in North Dakota, like college and high school annuals. But the ways he can find connections to the state is literally too lengthy to describe, but if you pull out a book, he’ll tell you how it’s related.

After suffering some health problems Carvell took an early retirement. He decided to purchase his family home relocated back to Mott about six years ago. Shortly after the move he remodeled a section of the home into a library.

His love for North Dakota and North Dakota literature began when he was a student at St. Vincent’s in Mott as a seventh grader. At the time he was in a combined seventh-eighth grade class, and the eighth graders had a project called Know Your State, and he was eavesdropping on the instructions.

“I was intrigued about what was told, and I guess that, you can trace my interest in North Dakota history back to St. Vincent’s in Mott,” he said.

A lot has changed since those days sitting in his class at St. Vincent’s, including how he finds more titles. With the advent of internet shopping, Carvell said the value and cost of old books has been driven down. Which is bad for the seller, but good for a collector, like Carvell. Internet has allowed him to buy books internationally, from Canada and from across the pond in the United Kingdom.

But he still shops for books the old fashioned way too. And one of his most interesting finds actually came from a trip to the west coast.

When he was out in Solvang, Calif. (population of just over 5,000), he stopped in a book store and found a book that happened to be set in North Dakota. And as he further browsed through the pages, he realized one of the chapters was a fictional story that was strongly based on the murder of one of his relatives, his uncle. It was a case that was never solved.

“That was one of the most bizarre, strangest,” he said.

He asked other relatives about the book, and no one had ever heard about the title.

Carvell’s collection requires a library ladder to get to the books on the high shelves. (Pioneer Photo by Cole Benz)

Carvell has a few books worth in the $500 range, he said. Though one visitor recently told him one of the titles had an asking price of over $1,000 on the internet. Some of his oldest books are dated in the mid to late 1800s, written by British authors who had come out to the Great Plains and Canada.

“Those are my oldest ones out of North Dakota,” he said.

He knows his collection pretty well. Recently on trip to Dickinson, he was at a used book store and purchased 10 more titles, only two were duplicates from his collection.

Carvell is well organized on the book shelves too. Recently during an open house he hosted, different visitors asked about books he owns on specific regions of the state; it only took a few moments for him to point them in the right direction.

Throughout the years, Carvell has also gained a great deal of knowledge of the state, not just on books he’s collected. He has so much knowledge, he’s been used as a resource for information.

“A lot, boy a lot, and I don’t mind and I don’t charge,” he said. “I do it because it’s fun, and it’s intriguing for me.”

A resident of St. Paul, Minn. once came to Hettinger County looking for the location of his family farm, so he could locate where his grandfather was buried. He visited the county courthosue, but the auditor didn’t have a location for the man. So they gave him Carvell’s contact information. Carvell helped him find the farm, and the gravesite. The man got the proper paperwork and exhumed grandpa and brought him to Bismarck to be next to his late wife.

“Sometimes we think about now we’re losing population out here, turns out now we’re losing the dead people in a way,” Carvell said jokingly.

He doesn’t see his collecting stopping anytime soon, and he is on the hunt almost weekly for more books.

But what does the future hold for his collection? Even Carvell isn’t quite sure, and the fate may fall to his only daughter Tasha.

“It’s sort of a curse on my daughter I guess,” he said. “I’ve told her that maybe the best thing is just to donate it to an institution.”


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