Talking Time and Place: Up Close and Personal with Curtis Bird of The Old Map Gallery

Who: Curtis Bird
Location: Denver, Colorado
Occupation: Owner, The Old Map Gallery

Curtis Bird is a keeper of place and time. This might sound like a strange statement, but when you consider what it means to be a seeker and seller of antique maps, it is actually fairly accurate. “That was one thing I was always told from the beginning: You have a custodial responsibility,” Bird says. “You’re going to be a steward and you’re just going to make sure that things are taken care of and that they go to new homes. And you have to help people find them.”

In the late 1990s, Bird moved from Illinois out west. He paid a visit to The Old Map Gallery, which was then owned by Paul Mahoney. He struck up a conversation with Mahoney, who liked him, and immediately hired him as his assistant. “I learned the trade from him when it was still kind of a pre-internet age, so I was there to see what deals were done on a handshake, and you knew everybody in the trade. It was a much smaller world in many ways,” Bird says. Years later, when Mahoney was ready to retire, Bird bought the shop.

In addition to entering the online era (which has been good for business, by the way—Bird says he receives interest in pieces he features on Facebook within minutes sometimes), over the course of the last twenty-five years there’s been a significant shift in interest in the map marketplace from America and exploration and the early colonial era to Asia. Now, Bird says, he focuses as much on maps of Beijing and Shanghai as he does on maps of Manhattan and Boston.

Bird’s clientele includes everyone from international collectors to major institutions like the Library of Congress to doctors and professionals throughout the U.S. with elegant offices to outfit to housewives in Canada to people who just seem to wander into the store. “The encouraging thing for me is having twenty-somethings who will come in and spend and afternoon literally sitting on the floor and just going through the maps. We had a couple come in yesterday from Seattle who had found us through Yelp or something, and they sat down and in a methodical fashion just started going through one thing after another looking and talking about it. It was really cool.”

“You start to understand humanity through place.”

Bird and his wife, Alanna, are still considered the “young kids” in the trade due to the fact that they’re roughly half the age of the older dealers who are in their 70s, but he’s already fielding questions from potential newcomers. “I got a request recently from somebody who wants to start a shop and wanted us to help guide them—‘How do you make the shop work? How do you do it?’—and for us, what we try and do, which might be stupid, but we try and do both breadth and depth at the same time,” Bird explains. “So we’ll have really good, rare stuff from parts of Asia in the 1500s, but at the same time, I’ll have really pictorial stuff for England from the 1930s, or a really hyper-accurate, architecturally true map of Manhattan from the 1960s.”

Customers truly do come to shop looking for a variety of maps. One client is an authority on dinosaur footprints. One is an anthropologist who has post-retirement plans to set off on an Indiana Jones-like search for a long-lost Persian King in Africa. Bird also sells to a number of artists. “You’ve got to think about culture, and think about images, and other things beyond that. At least, that’s where we’ve ended up. I don’t know if I’m looking for a Civil War battlefield tomorrow or if I’m looking for something that has the right color range that’s kind of inspiring.”

“One of my customers is an authority on dinosaur footprints.”

Bird’s ability to see the big picture, and view a map from a certain context, is at once impressive, inspiring, and incredibly insightful. Maps tell stories—for one, they illustrate places that no longer exist. “In this day and age, you have to be culturally literate from a number of different vantage points. You need to be able to understand the story and the spin and all that happened,” Bird says. “We get requests at times for maps of eastern Europe, and you need to think, ‘Is that person looking for a settlement that’s probably gone?’ There are a lot of backstories that we all probably need to learn to make sense of things. And I think that’s what we’ve tried to do. It’s a pretty profound moment to work through. We’ve had Holocaust survivors, and people with exile experiences, and how that plays into how they think of place is heavy and dynamic. You start to understand humanity through place. And I think that the key thing is that there’s more than one story.”

Understanding and accepting the impermanence of place is part of Bird’s job. In fact, he points out that this impermanence seems to be moving faster and faster. “Progress happens, and I think the thing the twenty-first century is showing us is that progress accelerates. What you might’ve experienced 300 years ago would be a pretty static experience form the time when you’re born to when you die. There’s not a whole lot of change. But as the centuries roll on, it seems like the acceleration gets faster and faster in a lot of ways. The one constant has been that we are evolving. The whole scene is evolving constantly.”

This idea seems to be spurring a couple of new fields of interest in the map world. “One is space exploration,” Bird says. “I think people all too readily forget the magnitude of ‘we left the planet and mapped a whole other planet next to us, and then we kept going.’ That’s pretty astounding when you step back from it. As a species, you’ve got to pat us on the back at some point and say ‘yeah, good job, well done.’  I don’t think it’s sunk in yet [but] has become something that I think people are starting to realize and sniff around about and find intrigue about. That is amazing, renaissance-quality stuff.”

The other category? “Stuff related to the internet age. I look for maps of early Silicon Valley, I look for early maps of the internet. It’s another one that I think we just take for granted and don’t realize, ‘Man, that’s amazing,’ that as a species we’re able to do that. I think there are some things we probably need to look back at now and really appreciate. I think in the development of an age where a simple app on a phone could help stimulate revolution, that’s huge. I think that whole development of that echelon of technology is important to mankind. As much as us being able to navigate well, I think there are certain levels of us being able to communicate at high speed across any part of the globe, that’s pretty huge.”

“I think people all too readily forget the magnitude of ‘we left the planet and mapped a whole other planet next to us, and then we kept going.’”

The Old Map Gallery // Denver, CO // 303.296.7725

Photographs by Katie Neuman.

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