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Rara avis: A local Darwin collector in his natural habitat

Mr. Herman began collecting books by history's great thinkers after his marriage dissolved. Ultimately, it was Darwin's personality that resonated the most.

Deborah Baic

Investment banker Garrett Herman already has the rote trappings of success: the vintage wine cellar, fine cars, many unloved TVs, a room solely devoted to massage. Yet a closer look around Mr. Herman's Rosedale home indicates he does not fit any dog-eat-dog stereotype.

In his spare time, the chief executive officer of the old-line brokerage house Loewen Ondaatje McCutcheon is a renowned expert on Charles Darwin.

Mr. Herman owns more than 5,000 volumes of Darwin's works and gives speeches on the scientist to groups such as the New York Academy of Medicine. His house, which also contains a scale model of the HMS Beagle as well as countless letters and ephemera, has become a nesting spot for many species of Darwin specialists.

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"Darwin is the most important of all the thinkers," said Mr. Herman in his basement, which boasts 60,000 editions of the Times of London dating back to the 19th century. "He's the one left who is controversial."

This weekend, many Darwinists will be flocking to Mr. Herman's hometown, where the University of Toronto will host an international conference celebrating the 150th anniversary of the publication of The Origin of Species . Eventually they might peruse Mr. Herman's most prized Darwinalia, on exhibit at the school's rare-books library, or see a play that he has sponsored at the Isabel Bader Theatre, Re: Design , about the iconoclast.

"That play is important," said Jim Secord, a University of Cambridge professor who is director of the Darwin Correspondence Project, which commissioned the much-translated play about the relationship between Mr. Darwin and the Harvard botanist Asa Gray.

Mr. Secord added that Mr. Herman's collection has also become a nesting spot for Darwinists of various species, and that Mr. Herman himself has helped advance the field. "Garrett is a very knowledgeable individual about Darwin - there's no doubt," he added. "He has a world-class collection of his books, and you can't achieve that without an understanding of the issues."

A forthcoming man who speaks in clipped sentences, Mr. Herman said he caught the collecting bug in Montreal's West End with Ronald Ivan Cohen, a childhood friend Mr. Herman always refers to by his full name. He and Mr. Cohen - who now is the national chair of the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council - began with coins, moving their way up to stamps. "Forty years later, I find out that Ronald Ivan Cohen is one of the world's biggest collectors of Winston Churchill. He wrote the bibliography of Churchill. It took him 17 years."

Mr. Herman said his own bibliophilia took hold after his marriage dissolved in the early nineties. He compiled thousands of rarities written by the great thinkers of the ages. "I used to collect a lot of different books: Newton, Marx, Machiavelli, Pavlov, Freud. As you collect, though, you learn."

Following a pattern of buying books that influenced other books, the number of tomes he owned grew exponentially. He literally had a full house. "I thought it was going to explode. I couldn't handle it. I had to figure out my own natural selection."

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At the same time, he was cultivating a reputation around town as a major book hound. "Every rare book store seems to know Garrett," mused musician Geddy Lee, another book lover who knows Mr. Herman from the Toronto chapter of Grapes for Humanity, a charity of oenophiles that raises money for land-mine victims. "I was once at David Mason, hoping to buy this book, but it was already on hold for Garrett," the Rush singer said, bemused. "Everything was on hold for Garrett!"

But, in the end, Darwin resonated with Mr. Herman the most. Not because of any predictable parallel Mr. Herman might make with the cruel nature of his business, but because of Darwin's personality. Or force of personality. While his brother, Erasmus, lived a profligate existence, thanks to the munificence of his family money, Charles used his funds towards grandiose quests that often led to findings that were at conflict with his religious upbringing. "If anybody didn't want to find what he found, it was him."

To help him keep track of his collection, Mr. Herman employs Charissa Varma, a PhD candidate at U of T who works 20 hours a week organizing a catalogue on his evolution-related books. Though she's not supposed to have a favourite, she said, she admitted that she still prefers reading A Monograph on the Sub-class Cirripedia . "It's about barnacle genitalia," said Ms. Varma, cheerful despite her solitary puttering. "It's zoological porn."

For Mr. Herman as well, Darwin's world has a way of coming alive at the most unsuspecting moments.

He remains in touch with several members of the Darwin family, including author Randal Keynes, whose book, Annie's Box: Charles Darwin, His Daughter, and Human Evolution , inspired the upcoming Darwin biopic Creation . The book's name refers to the vessel that held the trinkets that belonged to Darwin's daughter who died at age 10.

"I was reading it on the plane on the way over to London, and as Annie is getting sicker and sicker, I'm starting to get tears in my eyes," he recalled, saying that maybe it was because he had had a drink or two. "I had to skip the part where she died: It was just too difficult."

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On that 2001 trip, Mr. Herman met Mr. Keynes - Darwin's great-great-grandson - at the Darwin home, Down House, and as he was leaving, the curator rang him and asked him to come back. She had something to show him: Annie's box.

"I held it in my hands and the tears started again," he said, shaking his head. "I couldn't believe it, but this was the actual box that I read about in the book. All of a sudden, these people were so real!"

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