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A man with map madness

Alumnus Curtis Bird owns Denver's Old Map Gallery. Photo: Wayne Armstrong

Curtis Bird may be the only person who can talk about Pegasus, Lewis and Clark, Asian elephants, dragons, the Ku Klux Klan, Prohibition, Spanish novels, World War II Allied pilots and brontosauruses in the span of 45 minutes — and relate them all to one topic.

All of the aforementioned subjects, or references to them, can be found scattered throughout the thousands of antique maps and accessories Bird has amassed in his downtown Denver gallery.

Those with a “freakishly strong interest in cartography,” as well as the Library of Congress and many Ivy League schools, are familiar with Bird’s Old Map Gallery. For those who aren’t, there’s more to the place than meets the eye.

“Maps contain a wealth of information,” explains Bird (BA music ’99). “They are a product of their time.”

Take, for instance, a 1938 pictorial map of Tennessee by Ruth Taylor, which shows where the lumberyards and cotton fields were and includes icons where the Ku Klux Klan could be found.

Bird cites other examples that provide windows into particular eras: a 1590 Sebastian Munster map that contains the first illustration of an Asian elephant; a circa 1705 map that depicts California as an island; and a 1780 map by T.C. Lotter that showcases images of mythical dragons.

All of these, in their own way, exemplify the social thoughts, culture or science of their time, Bird says. “Cartography is the intersection of art and science.”

Although Bird studied classical guitar at DU, his passion for maps overrides his love of music. It’s been that way since he was a child.

As a youngster, Bird would rummage through his grandparents’ dusty old books and small atlases. “It was imprinted at [the age of] 4 that another world existed,” he says.

He remembers being fascinated, as well as a little stunned.

After working in a gallery on the East Coast, he made his way to Denver in the early 1990s and started working as an assistant at the Old Map Gallery. Now as its owner, he continues to share his knowledge with avid collectors and beginners alike.

“We are definitely a service,” Bird says of the shop that specializes in western exploration and Colorado but also accommodates a huge range of interests (and price ranges).

Without giving up too many secrets, Bird confesses that he and his wife, Alanna, travel the world scouring for new pieces. While they travel as far as France, Italy or England — “where the trade is really centered” — places closer to home also turn up items worthy of consideration. One weekend trip to Texas ended with a $50,000 deal for a rare promotional map of the state, which shows Texas “as it was, just on the brink of the Civil War.”

Although it may be one of the best-kept secrets in Denver, the Old Map Gallery may not stay that way for long. Bird is now getting recognition far beyond large U.S. institutions and places he used to go are now coming to him.

Even pop-culture icons are giving him nods. Last December, celebrity chef Rachael Ray’s magazine recommended the Old Map Gallery as a great place to find gifts.

Whether your interest is in history, science or art, Bird says, chances are you’ll find it on a map.

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