Rare book collector Ed Surovell started with little, now traces ‘footprints of mankind’

Edward Surovell made his mark selling houses — thousands of them across southeast Michigan with trademark blue lawn signs.

But his passion is books. One-of-a-kind-books. Michigan books published in the 1800s.

The affable 73-year-old Ann Arbor real estate broker has acquired nearly 15,000 of them, making him one of state’s premier collectors and enabling him to regale friends and acquaintances with tales about interesting people from Michigan’s past.

Such as William Beaumont, the U.S. Army surgeon whose groundbreaking research on a gunshot victim on Mackinac Island in the early 1800s made him the Father of Gastric Physiology — the science of human digestion. Or, James Jesse Strang, the charismatic leader of a Mormon colony on Beaver Island. Disenchanted followers murdered Strang in 1856 and a mob destroyed his printing press and drove his disciples off the island.

“Printed words are the footprints of mankind,” Surovell said. “They tell us where we’ve come from as a society and they point to where we’re going. They are the living remnant of all of us and they’ve made me who I am.”

Though Surovell is modest about his large collection, fellow bibliophiles — book lovers — said he is as exceptional as the treasures he has preserved for future generations.

“Ed is the real deal when it comes to antiquarian book collecting,” says Kevin Graffagnino, director of the William L. Clements Library at the University of Michigan. “He’s a connoisseur of book collecting — the kind of person who guys like me want to hang out with because of his passion for books.”

Surovell, the longest-serving trustee of the Ann Arbor District Library, is a member of the Grolier’s Club, an invitation-only international society whose 800 members promote the appreciation of books. He’s also is active in civic affairs.

He is an example of what someone can accomplish despite a slow career start.

Surovell grew up in suburban Washington, D.C. His father was a Russian immigrant and commercial artist. His Brooklyn-born mother was an office administrator and manuscript editor. She was a voracious reader who amassed thousands of books in their home in Fairfax County, Va.

Although Surovell shared her affinity for books, he said he was a lackluster student. When he graduated from high school in 1958, he didn’t know what he wanted to be, but his parents expected him to go to college.

He said he talked his way into Columbia University on the strength of high SAT scores, a broad range of knowledge from reading and conversational skills that were exceptional for a teenager. That fall, he headed for New York with his new wife, who was pregnant with their first child.

Surovell spent the next four years juggling studies, parenting and clerical jobs at local libraries. A year after getting his degree in history in 1962, he decided to get serious about a career.

A family friend helped him land a job as a copy editor for Harcourt, Brace & World, the first of three major publishing houses he worked for in New York, New Jersey and Illinois. He said the job forced him to quickly improve his spelling.

In 1968, he moved to Ann Arbor to pursue a graduate degree in history at the University of Michigan. But he got distracted by the social upheaval of the 1960s on campus and never finished. In 1972, he and his wife split up.

“I had no visible means of support, was separated and paying child support,” Surovell recalled. “I had to do something in a hurry.”

By then, Surovell had bought a house on Ann Arbor’s Old West Side with a borrowed $2,000 down payment. He fixed it up and sold it for a tidy profit.

“I discovered very quickly that I was very good at helping people buy and sell homes,” Surovell said.

He didn’t look like other real estate salesmen. He had shoulder-length hair, a Fu Manchu moustache and drove an old pickup truck. But his appearance and academic background clicked with professors, university employees and former students who were shopping for homes in Ann Arbor.

In 1982, Surovell left his job at a local real estate company in a disagreement with the boss. Undaunted, he started his own company — Edward Surovell Realtors — during the worst year for real estate in Michigan since the Great Depression. He and three other realtors worked out of his kitchen for three months until he could afford to open his own office.

Over the next three decades, Surovell’s business grew.

By last October, when he sold his firm to Howard Hanna Real Estate Services, Surovell operated 10 offices in southeast Michigan — the 58th largest non-franchise real estate company in the nation. Today, he’s a consultant for the new owner. Surovell lives in upscale Barton Hills Village with his second wife, Natalie Surovell, a retired commercial interior designer.

He said he doesn’t recall the exact moment when he crossed the line from book accumulator to collector.

Perhaps it was in the early 1990s when he realized he owned an important collection of 19th century pamphlets, many of them published by Dr. Alvin Wood Chase, a homeopathic physician who produced thousands of books on his Ann Arbor printing press. The pamphlets included an 1858 fifth edition of "Dr. Chase’s Recipes," the forerunner to a later collection of home remedies and other topics that was popular after the Civil War.

He also began collecting books in Native American languages, mainly tribes of the Great Lakes. And he acquired books published by James Strang, including a rare second edition entitled "The Book of the Law of the Lord."

Surovell’s oldest Michigan book, "L’Ame Penitente ou Le Nouveau Pensez-y-bien," was published in 1809 by Father Gabriel Richard, the French Catholic priest who brought Michigan its first permanent printing press and later co-founded the University of Michigan. The book of poems is the oldest title published in the state. Surovell said he has 10 books published by Richard, possibly the largest collection in private hands.

He also collects Michigan plat books, atlases and what may be the only remaining copies of Ann Arbor newspapers published during the Civil War.

Curators from historical libraries, including U-M’s Clements and Bentley Historical Library, have examined Surovell’s collection and identified several books that would be important additions to their collections.

Surovell said he sometimes buys multiple copies of rare books to get the others out of circulation, like his 1858 edition of "Dr. Chase’s Recipes."

“There are only six known copies in the whole world and I own four of them,” he said. “If I have it and you don’t, that makes it rarer. There’s a certain amount of competitiveness to this thing.”

Surovell said he finds his books in antique shops, rare book catalogues, from book dealers and by word of mouth.

He winced when asked if he has read all of his books.

“That’s not a question you should ask a book collector,” Surovell chuckled.

Although Surovell said he has read some of his books many times, the point of collecting is finding, acquiring and researching rare titles. He said there’s something special about having a book that another human being held in their hands 200 years ago.

Surovell is outgoing, engaging and eagerly shares his knowledge with others.

He also is very active in civic and government affairs and the promotion of classical music.

Surovell has served on the Ann Arbor planning commission, Downtown Development Authority, Library of Michigan Foundation, the Michigan Historical Commission, the Historical Society of Michigan and Chamber Music America. He’s also a member of the board of the Eastern Michigan University Foundation.

“Public life matters,” says Surovell, an ardent middle-of-the-road Democrat. “It’s the very essence of the world we occupy.”

Says Josie Parker, director of the Ann Arbor District Library: “Ed is a true renaissance man. I don’t think you can ask him a question about any period in history, about a writer or an event, which he doesn’t know something about.

“The stories he tells about his books are more interesting than the books themselves,” she said. “Ed is one of my favorite people in the whole world and always will be.”

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John Mills
Thu, 09/26/2013 - 9:43am
As an avid family historian, life-long Michigander, and Democrat, I hope that Mr. Surovell will consider placing his collection with the Archives of Michigan where it can be preserved and protected for all MIchiganders and Michiganians in perpetuity. This article clearly captures the remarkable man that Ed Surovell must be, which is a testament to his personal character and the influence that his parents had on his life. I am in awe of the life Mr. Surovell has created for himself, and grateful for his generosity in sharing it with so many commissions, foundations, and societies. Thank you, Mr. Surovell for being you!