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Collector owns nearly 700 editions of same book

Community Portrait
By: Michael Kirby
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Some people might say that his collection of books is excessive. More people would say that they don’t understand why he would want a collection of over 600 copies of the same book. More direct people might say that his collection is an obsession, and seriously, Auburn’s Bill Ewald would probably agree saying yes, yes and yes to all of the above. Ewald is a seven-year Auburn resident, retired firefighter and an antiquarian book dealer. That means he studies, collects, buys and sells antique books. Ewald is also the leading expert in the world on the classic book, “Two Years Before the Mast,” written by Richard Henry Dana Jr. and published in 1840. “Dana’s book is important because it was one of only a handful of books written about what was going on in California at that time,” Ewald said. Dana’s book was also one of the first written about trade sailing and the hide trade in the Mexican territory that was to become California. It was written while Dana sailed to California in 1834-35 and from the point of view of the common deckhand. It offers a rare glimpse of life aboard a trade ship and the adventures of the sailors as they braved disease, weather, ship life and exotic ports of call, sailing around the horn. Dana’s voyage took two years and his book became an instant best-seller and acknowledged source of what life was like in California, and remains a historical resource on early California and required reading in many high schools. In 1985 Ewald sort of fell into collecting the book by chance. He was then a firefighter and collected mining artifacts in his off-hours. Ewald took a class on antique identification and met bookstore owner Herb Caplan. Ewald soon went to work for him at Argus in Sacramento. “I just fell in love with rare books and the book trade,” Ewald said. “Unfortunately Caplan died from cancer, but he casually remarked one day that someone should put together a complete collection of ‘Two Years Before the Mast.’” His boss had about 10 editions and Ewald had no idea of how many existed. The book intrigued him and his journey into collecting and learning about Dana and his book began. Ewald owns close to 700 different editions of the book, with his next closest contender being Harvard University at about 140 editions, which were donated by the Dana family in 1940. The editions are first edition hardcovers, paperbacks, and even more rare than his first editions are his editions published as part of a school district library series, which is how the book was first published and marketed to schools. Ewald is an expert on “Two Years Before the Mast” and deals in rare and common editions of the book at values between $10 and $10,000. “My goal is to publish a title bibliography, and that becomes a record of the book for future generations,” Ewald said. “It will be the standard reference on Dana.” “It’s funny when I have the books displayed at a show and people start looking, it takes a few minutes, and then they are amazed to discover they’re looking at hundreds of editions of the same book,” Ewald said. Ewald lives in Auburn with his wife, Bonnie Terry, and operates Argus Books in Grass Valley.